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Sunday, May 4, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Travel Books / Air Safety -- `Rot At The Core': Former Faa Inspector Tells All

The Washington Post

As a safety hazard, the idea of a "soused louse" blocking an airplane emergency exit is one I'd never thought about before reading Mary Schiavo's frightening, informative new book, "Flying Blind, Flying Safe" (Avon Books, $25).

Schiavo is the former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and her book definitely lives up to its jacket cover promise to tell you "everything you need to know to travel safer by air."

Last year, Schiavo resigned her position to blow the whistle on what she calls "the rot at the core" of the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency charged with assuring the safety of air travel in this country.

The book, written with New York Times reporter Sabra Chartrand, is a stinging indictment of the FAA's repeated failures - it should have grounded ValuJet before the Florida Everglades crash, Schiavo insists. But it is also a practical guide to what individual travelers can and should do to protect their lives when flying.

In response to Schiavo's book, the FAA has released a statement saying, "The American aviation system is the safest in the world, carrying 1.6 million passengers safely every day." It noted that the agency will spend $4.4 billion on enforcement, inspections and other safety measures this year, and next year the figure will climb to $4.9 billion.

Still, if you fly a lot, or even a little, you ought to take a look at the book.

Speaking up can save lives

The "soused louse" is just one example - a minor one, to be sure - of a potential hazard for which to be on the lookout. Schiavo, who was a pilot by age 18, seems to be something of a worrywart, which to my thinking is just the kind of person needed in the post she occupied from 1990 to 1996. She is able to recognize problem areas that most people might overlook.

As Schiavo points out, air safety regulations do not prohibit serving alcohol to anyone seated in the emergency-exit rows - a practice that in her view should be banned.

"Flying and alcohol do not mix," she writes. "Someone whose wits are dulled by alcohol presents a hazard to safety." She urges passengers who see a drunk seated between them and an emergency exit to alert a flight attendant.

Speaking up can save lives, including your own, the book makes clear. "Before some of the most tragic, dramatic accidents in recent history," she says, "passengers aboard the planes saw something amiss but did not speak up."

In one such incident, people sitting in the back of the Air Florida jet that crashed into the wintry Potomac in 1982 had spotted a pileup of snow on the wings but kept silent.

In the winter of 1993, Schiavo, who currently is a professor of public policy at Ohio State University, was seated on an idling USAir plane in a runway lineup. She saw other waiting aircraft getting de-iced, and she asked a flight attendant to alert the captain that ice was building up on their plane also. The attendant initially refused until Schiavo pulled out her inspector general identification.

Thus warned, the captain stepped back into the passenger cabin for a look and ordered the plane out of the lineup for de-icing. And then, writes Schiavo, "we took off safely."

Do not assume, she says, "that mechanics or flight crew are aware of everything or can see everything you can." And if a flight attendant isn't responsive, carry your concern directly to the cockpit. Good pilots "will be thankful, not scornful, that you spoke up."

In the book's introductory chapters, Schiavo details her complaints about the FAA - it "betrays the people who fly," she charges. And she paints a horrifying picture of a future with more fatal crashes, as the growth in air travel coincides with a stiff competition among budget airlines that leads to cutbacks in maintenance and other safety measures.

This is the sort of stuff passengers need to know to pressure their legislators into taking action to overhaul FAA policies.

Aging aircraft

From a consumer's point of view, however, the three most important chapters may be the ones titled "Airplanes," "Airlines" and "Airports." They are full of practical safety information, such as which airlines fly the oldest planes or have the worst accident record. She names names, and lets readers know which aircraft and airlines she won't fly on.

Schiavo particularly targets aging aircraft. The typical "design life" of a plane is 20 years or 60,000 cycles (each set of takeoffs and landings), she says. But of the 4,000 jets in U.S. airline fleets in 1996, some 1,000 are more than 20 years old and 500 others are more than 25 years old.

"These older planes suffer from stress fractures, wear and corrosion," she writes. "Avionics and electronic systems are aged, as is the wiring, and the aircraft have greater need for repairs. Some have fewer safety features like flame-resistant upholstery and newer-generation black boxes."

Several pages of charts list U.S. and foreign airlines and the average age of each type of aircraft the airline flies. Among the oldest aircraft operated by major domestic carriers are TWA's DC-9s (25 years), Midwest Express's DC-9s (25.2 years), the US Airways Shuttle's Boeing 727s (25.2 years) and Northwest's DC-9s (25.8 years). ValuJet's DC-9s have an average age of 26.6 years, according to the charts.

Oldest types of aircraft

The charts also detail the oldest types of aircraft still in service. They include the DC-9 in Series 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50; the DC-10 in Series 10, 30 and 40; the Boeing 727 in Series 100 and 200; the 737 in Series 100 and 200; the 747 in Series 100 and 200; the Lockheed L-10ll; and (this one hadn't occurred to me) the Concorde.

Schiavo's advice is to avoid planes that are 20 years or older, particularly if they are operated by start-up airlines, a questionable foreign airline or any airline short of cash "that farms out maintenance to the lowest bidder."

This final point would be hard for an average consumer to determine, short of quizzing the airline or spotting a reference in the media.

Some airlines, such as Northwest, refurbish older planes, arguing that this makes them as good as new. She says, "I'm not convinced.".

Mechanical problems

But age isn't the only problem with some planes. Schiavo cites several aircraft with a history of mechanical problems, which she has put on her "nervous-flier" list. These include the ATR, which can become difficult to control in very cold weather; the Embraer 120 (the Brasilia), which has been involved in five fatal crashes since 1990; and all Russian-made planes.

Stay off the Russian planes, she says, and wait until improvements being made on the other two are thoroughly tested.

She is also uneasy about the 757, a relatively new plane that was involved in two fatal crashes in 1996 after cockpit instruments failed (both involved foreign airlines); the brand-new 777, for which she believes preflight testing was not sufficient; and the Airbus 340, a computerized aircraft that has experienced software problems.

She will wait for a year or so to board the latter two, she says, which should be time enough to get the bugs worked out.

Passenger rights

Heeding Schiavo's warnings, however, often may be impractical. When booking an airline ticket, you can ask the type of aircraft being used but the reservation clerk may not be cooperative. And what do you do if a geriatric aircraft is assigned to the only flight to your destination? Sometimes airlines switch aircraft at the last minute, and if you have a nonrefundable ticket you must take the flight or lose the money you paid for it.

Schiavo's answer is to urge passage of new passenger rights. If passengers decline to fly because of a "worrisome condition of the craft" - or if severe weather makes them hesitant - they should have the right to use the ticket on another flight or get an immediate refund.

Schiavo also tells readers what the FAA won't: which airlines, domestic and foreign, have the worst accident rate.

Her informative list is based on the number of accidents and incidents reported to the FAA from 1990 to 1995. An accident is defined as a mishap causing death, serious injury or significant aircraft damage. An incident is a less-severe mishap.

Accident rates, other red flags

Among major U.S. airlines, Continental is cited as having the poorest accident/incident record, followed by Delta, American, Northwest, TWA, United, US Airways, America West and Southwest.

Another list notes the airlines "that have been grounded, hit with enforcement actions" or which display "other red flags" that suggest safety problems. They include primarily budget airlines, such as ValuJet; charter operations, such as Tower Airlines; and Mesa, a 142-plane commuter airline serving New Mexico. Mesa experienced 20 incidents and one accident in three years, writes Schiavo, and agreed to pay a $500,000 fine in 1996. "I will take the bus or the train, drive or walk before I'd fly Mesa right now."

When contacted, Mesa spokeswoman Sarah Pitcher, vice president for corporate communications, responded to Schiavo's charge: "We've flown for 17 years, and we've never had a fatal accident."

Dangerous airports

America's most dangerous airports - the ones pilots don't like - are Washington National, Boston's Logan, San Diego, LaGuardia, Juneau and Idaho's Sun Valley, according to Schiavo. Abroad, the airports at Hong Kong; La Paz, Bolivia; Quito, Ecuador; and Bogota, Colombia, require careful maneuvering on landings.

This is all scary stuff, and after reading the book I'm not sure I'll be as complacent as I have been when I settle into my seat on takeoff. But passengers should have this kind of safety information when choosing a flight. As Schiavo says several times, not all airlines are alike in terms of safety.

"Ultimately, only passengers have the power to force change," concludes Schiavo. They can do so by exercising common sense, speaking up, and using their purchasing power by choosing airlines that make safety a priority.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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