By MATTHEW L. WALD
It has not been an easy ride for David R. Hinson, who resigned as head of the Federal Aviation Administration on Saturday.
Mr. Hinson, who is 62, spent his 39 months in office coping with a string of crashes that raised embarrassing questions about the agency. The loss of life from airplane disasters this year was particularly disheartening, coming a year after an unprecedented ”safety summit” of aviation industry officials and regulators that was meant to move the industry toward a goal of zero accidents.
But as he looks forward to returning to private life, Mr. Hinson is unapologetic about the performance of his agency during his tenure.
The first major crash of the year has proven particularly embarrassing for the agency. In May, a ValuJet DC-9 crashed in the Everglades, killing 110 people, and Mr. Hinson backed up his boss, Federico F. Peña, the Secretary of Transportation, when he insisted that the airline was safe. The following month, the FAA turned around and grounded the carrier, for violations Mr. Hinson stresses were unrelated to the crash.
”We had an unfortunate confluence of events which caused the Secretary to suffer some public embarrassment,” Mr. Hinson said in an interview last week.
Then in July, a Paris-bound Trans World Airlines 747 exploded off Long Island, killing all 230 people on board. The F.B.I. turned up evidence of explosives in the wreckage; a few weeks later in an admission that raised questions about interagency communication, the FAA admitted that all big planes are likely to have evidence of explosives, whether they have been bombed or not, because of the procedures used when dogs are put through bomb-sniffing exercises on board. The cause of the crash is still unknown.
But other, smaller crashes have also put the agency in a bad light. In April, a 7-year-old girl and two adults were killed in a crash in Cheyenne, Wyo., in the plane in which she was seeking to become the youngest pilot to fly across the country. Mr. Hinson’s agency tried to convince the world that its rules on who may fly a plane were adequate, and none had been broken.
There have been other problems in Mr. Hinson’s tenure. The air traffic control system kept breaking down because the agency had not replaced old equipment. Mr. Hinson has updated the equipment but the system still has staffing problems. And last year the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents, cast doubt on the FAA’s ability to evaluate new planes, after the crash of a French-built turboprop in Roselawn, Ind., because of a susceptibility to icing that had gone undetected.
There may be more bad news to come. The safety board opens hearings in a week on the ValuJet crash, and the FAA is likely to be faulted for the way it oversees ”start-up” airlines that are growing rapidly. The General Accounting Office, in a recent study prompted by that crash, criticized the FAA for spending more time inspecting smooth-running airlines than troubled ones.
But Mr. Hinson, in a 45-minute interview last week, said that in his tenure, the FAA has been through fundamental improvements that will help it meet the challenges ahead.
”It’s a commitment to change that I see in the agency, and a willingness now to accept change that I feel very good about,” he said.
”One of the major problems is the rate at which technology is being introduced, and the inability historically at the FAA to deal with rapid technological change in an efficient way, because they were mired in the processes of the 1950’s.”
His replacement is likely to have experience in air safety, which the Clinton Administration has made a focus. Two men with long experience on the National Transportation Safety Board have been mentioned as possible replacements: Carl Vogt, a former safety board chairman, now a lawyer in Washington and a member of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, which is headed by Vice President Al Gore; and Robert T. Francis, the Safety Board’s current vice chairman. Mr. Francis, who served for years as the chief FAA official in Europe, became a familiar figure to the public in July as the board member assigned to the T.W.A. crash.
Mr. Hinson said that the aviation industry and its regulators will have to do better in future years to drive down the death rate per million miles flown, or the increasing volume of flights will drive up the number of deaths. In a recent speech, he said that in the last 35 years, the death rate had fallen by more than 90 percent. But the number of flights will rise by 40 percent by 2015, his agency estimates, and the number of passengers will double.
He said, though, that the agency could stand further changes. It would work faster and better if it were an independent agency, freed from the bureaucratic delays imposed by the Department of Transportation, and from the political appointees whom it would never have hired on the basis of merit, he said.
A chronic problem for the agency, according to Mr. Hinson and some of the FAA’s critics, is that Presidential elections and other circumstances have forced turnover in the administrator’s office, just as the occupant was getting to understand the problems. But Mr. Hinson’s successor, under a recently passed law, will have a term of five years.
But the FAA has recently won exemption from most Federal personnel and procurement rules, and in the last few months the agency has quickly hired new talent by paying more than the standard wage scale. Unhappy with the work of a contractor on a new navigation system, it terminated the contract in days, instead of years. And every working day, Mr. Hinson said, the FAA puts in service another four or five new pieces of equipment.
Mr. Hinson lists as a major accomplishment pulling the plug on an ill-managed program for better air traffic control equipment; instead, the FAA is now pursuing a replacement that will do roughly the same work, with off-the-shelf, easy-to-maintain computer equipment, leaving improvements in function for later. He has also helped accelerate the use of satellite navigation, and begun the job of establishing computerized data-gathering on the airlines’ day-to-day operations, a quality-control technique already in use in Europe.
Mr. Hinson, a former fighter pilot and former executive with Midway Airlines, has not said what his future plans are.