The Clinton administration ordered a high-level shakeup at the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday in response to criticism related to last month’s ValuJet crash.
The changes, announced by Transportation Secretary Federico Pena and FAA administrator David Hinson, include the tightening of inspection rules and the forced retirement of the agency’s top safety official.
Pena also proposed changes in the agency’s charter so that the FAA could concentrate exclusively on safety and drop its dual responsibility of promoting aviation.
“The FAA looked itself in the mirror,” Pena said. “It found that organizational and management changes were needed.”
The transportation officials insisted that the shakeup did not reflect a general lack of airline safety, which they noted was far safer today than at any time in history.
However, they said their intense probe into ValuJet after the May 11 crash into the Florida Everglades, which killed all 110 aboard, revealed difficulties in government supervision of the new, low-price airlines, where contractors do much of the maintenance and training.
Industry experts said it was unlikely the changes at the 40,000-person agency will be felt by consumers, although there has been a widespread feeling that the FAA must do something to bolster its image.
Pena and Hinson both were ridiculed for their unequivocal defense of ValuJet immediately after the accident.
“ValuJet is a safe airline,” Pena said shortly after the crash. “I want to emphasize that I have flown ValuJet.”
“I will tell you and our viewers the airline is safe,” Hinson said at the time. “I would fly it.”
But the FAA changed its mind. After a 30-day inspection, Hinson said Monday that the FAA found “several serious deficiencies in ValuJet’s operations.”
The airline, which serves 31 cities in 19 states, voluntarily suspended its flights at midnight Monday.