Mary Schiavo, Inspector General of the Department of Transportation, was working at her home computer on Saturday, May 11, 1996, when she received a phone call that made her feel "queasy and sick." It was the kind of nightmare she had long feared: ValuJet Flight 592 had crashed in the Florida Everglades. A fire had broken out in the cargo hold of the jet, an ancient DC-9 en route to Atlanta from Miami, filling the cabin with smoke and probably asphyxiating the 110 passengers and crew members before they were swallowed by the swamp. Schiavo was disturbed not only because of the scale of the tragedy but also because she knew it might have been averted. Just three months earlier, Schiavo had warned the Federal Aviation Administration about ValuJet's awful safety record. But the FAA let the airline keep flying, despite Schiavo's concern and a recommendation from some of the agency's own inspectors that ValuJet be shut down.
The night following the crash, Schiavo would be ignored no longer: she appeared on ABC's Nightline opposite FAA administrator David Hinson, who insisted that ValuJet was "safe to fly. I would fly it." Flatly contradicting him and alluding to the FAA's mission to promote air travel, Schiavo declared, "It's not my job to sell tickets on ValuJet." She dramatically disclosed to a national audience the FAA's own damning statistics: ValuJet's safety record was 14 times as poor as that of other discount carriers, even though the agency claimed that all airlines were equally safe. "I would not fly ValuJet," she said.
In more than five years as Inspector General, Schiavo spent a lot of time refuting the FAA. Although her TV revelation seemed like the first act of a whistle blower, it was in fact the denouement of a personal crusade to make the agency more responsive to safety issues--and less responsive to the needs of the airlines. Stifled continually by the FAA's political prowess, Schiavo eventually decided that the best way to bring about reform at the agency was to resign and tell her story. In the following excerpts from her new book, Flying Blind, Flying Safe, she describes how her work at the Transportation Department left her "dismayed, disillusioned and afraid for the flying public."
After the crash, ValuJet was grounded for more than three months. The carrier has since returned to the air, although reduced in size. Is ValuJet safe to fly? Is any airline? Yes, if compared with other means of transportation, such as autos. But given the rapid growth of air travel, today's low accident rate will mean greater numbers of crashes in the next decade unless safety is improved. In the wake of Schiavo's campaign, Congress has changed the FAA's mandate to make safety its primary mission.
The bible may teach that human life is priceless, but in my early years as Inspector General, I heard rumors that a Federal Aviation Administration study assigned a worth to the average passenger who might die in a plane crash. In its cost-benefit analysis, the rumor went, the FAA easily determined that the value of those lives didn't amount to much compared with the hard, cold billions that saving them would cost in aircraft-safety devices, in beefed-up monitoring of planes, pilots and air traffic, and in airports hermetically sealed against bombs and hijacking.