Related to the Boeing 787 grounding, KIRO Radio in Seattle interviewed former DoT Inspector General (DoT-IG) Mary Schiavo on Wednesday, January 30th. An audio clip of just over five-minutes is available online.
In the interview, Schiavo points most of her criticism at FAA for their failed oversight. She said it was a departure for the FAA, “…allowing a system that could overheat, catch fire, or in some cases explode, but they were going to allow it to be contained.”
Schiavo knows this subject very well. In fact, she is widely considered a hero to advocates of U.S. aviation safety (and widely despised by many of the people in places of aviation power). She was DoT-IG from 1990 to 1996. Her tenure included numerous incidents where, to the average citizen, it was clear she was continually pressured by both FAA and DoT to tone it down and not do her job. Her six years also included one of the most horrific air crashes in U.S. history: when Valujet caught fire and dove into the Everglades, east of Miami. The ValuJet crash was attributed to an intense fire in the cargo hold, started when improperly stowed oxygen generators self-ignited. However, ValuJet’s rapid growth as a low-cost carrier, using older DC-9’s and outsourcing all maintenance, had resulted in a terrible performance record. So much so that, in August 1995, the Department of Defense rejected the use of ValuJet to move military personnel, issuing a scathing report critical of Valujet’s quality assurance.
At the time of the accident, FAA was three months into a four-month intensive review of ValuJet. Common sense suggests, if you hit a pedestrian or a fire hydrant while doing your driving test, you just failed. But, amazingly, despite the fact 110 died in the Everglades, FAA proceeded to sign off ValuJet. Not only that, but both Administrator Hinson and DoT Secretary Pena stood before cameras and reassured the public about their belief that Valujet was safe. DoT-IG Schiavo disagreed, expressed her opinion, and backed it up with internal documents. Transparency — as has rarely (if ever) been seen in aviation politics. It was five weeks later, due primarily to Mary Schiavo’s whistleblowing, that Hinson and Pena ate their words, when FAA finally de-certified ValuJet. The flip-flopping by the FAA Administrator and the DoT Secretary is so very similar to the timeline on the 787 battery fires, as witnessed this month.
“…the reason that there was so much backlash, is
they were just too quick to say, ‘Oh, it’s OK.’…”
Mary Schiavo, 9/25/09, being interviewed by FRONTLINE
In the 1990’s, Schiavo was not reserved with her criticism of ValuJet. She was also very critical of FAA’s failure to manage the widespread problem of unapproved bogus parts. She testified at a congressional hearing on 6/25/96, then resigned a few weeks later. Schiavo then wrote the book Flying Blind, Flying Safe, which made the NY Times bestseller’s list, and she has since applied her law degree representing aviation accident victims. She has consistently articulated clear criticisms of FAA, for their failure to correct problems and for fundamental conflicts of interest.