Deception and Denial at America West

I don't much care for the current press frenzy about the possibility of America West Airlines jets blowing up, crashing into mountaintops, the passenger cabins cartwheeling through forests as torsos are cut in half by those stupid safety belts that are supposed to save your doomed behind when the airplane barrel-rolls into the ground at 700 mph, shattering giant, jagged tree limbs which further churn the blood, mucus, bone and tissue into a pulpy stew until finally the fuel tanks erupt, the very flames of hell itself exploding into a fireball which incinerates all those carcasses and body parts until the crash site looks like several tons of human charcoal detonated over four square miles of terrain with only the stuffed teddy bears of toddlers and the seat cushions that double as flotation devices somehow surviving the unimaginable impact.

No one wants to say it, but this is what we are discussing when the federal government and the press question the safety policies at America West.

As a frequent, and terrified, flier on America West, I don't like those doom-and-gloom stories.

While it might be news that the Federal Aviation Administration thinks America West's maintenance record rivals that of Air Bangladesh, I hate reading about it.

On this point America West CEO, William Franke, and I agree.
Where we part company is on this ValuJet business.
Following the morning paper's first report on the FAA's problems with America West, Franke sent an ill-tempered note to the publisher. We were happy to provide our readers with excerpts from the letter because Franke's message was the sort of sophisticated corporate gesture worthy of Kemper Marley.

Interestingly enough, Franke complained in his letter that the paper failed to note that because of the May 11 ValuJet crash that wiped out 110 human lives, the FAA had a hornet in its boxer shorts about safety. As the first major airline reviewed in the wake of the Florida tragedy, he claimed, America West had come under unfair scrutiny by the feds.

Specifically citing the ValuJet tragedy, which the FAA says was caused by that airline's improper handling of oxygen tanks, Franke insisted the press should have reviewed the FAA audit keeping in mind "the possible 'backlash' response we [the airline] may have suffered."

The "America West As Victim" defense was also trumpeted eloquently in an "Executive Report" from Franke, circulated within America West the day before press coverage of the FAA findings. The company-wide memo again cited the ValuJet crash as the cause of his airline's problems.

But there was a subtle difference in the "Executive Report" from Franke's letter to the Arizona Republic's publisher. Franke couldn't very well con airline professionals into believing that the FAA, a notorious booster of the industry, had suddenly become too safety-conscious in the wake of one more blip falling off the radar screen.

Instead, Franke blamed the anticipated America West press coverage on ValuJet, implying the media wouldn't have taken note of the FAA findings on his airline except for those 110 corpses nourishing the Everglades ecosystem.

"As the first major carrier to undergo its annual inspection after the ValuJet and TWA accidents, you can expect the FAA's report on America West to be covered extensively in the media."

Although the FAA keelhauled the airline's maintenance record, Franke makes it sound as if the glitches uncovered in the inspection were minor; for example, Franke wrote: "A tie-back strap for first-class curtains on an aircraft was missing . . ."

And you can sort of see in Franke's remarks that the airline has got to hire a few more mechanics and quality-control people. But the "Executive Report" reeks of spin control and duplicity.

Reading Franke is like listening to some unshaven freedom fighter in Croatia telling you in broken English why he is covered in the mud of fresh graves; you need a Christiane Amanpour to jump in with a voice-over saying, "What this unbathed little weasel is neglecting to say is . . ."

Although Franke repeatedly blamed ValuJet for his problems, he is curiously silent on a key aspect of the FAA investigation.

The federal agency found the same problems that caused the ValuJet crash--remember those oxygen tanks?--present at America West.

No, I'm not kidding.
Here's the part of the FAA report you have not read about.
Section 1.02 of the report is titled HAZMAT Recognition. It begins, "The surveillance activities in this area revealed serious problems . . ."

The FAA specifically had gone in to investigate how America West was handling the oxygen tanks in the wake of the ValuJet crash.

Keep in mind that the June and July inspections by the FAA started six weeks after the ValuJet crash, a tragedy whose oxygen-tank-related origins received unrelenting publicity. By the time the feds showed up at America West, the entire world knew that poorly handled oxygen canisters were Scud missiles in mufti.

What the feds found at all three America West hubs in Phoenix; Columbus, Ohio; and Las Vegas was mindlessness coupled with a "What, Me Worry?" attitude seldom observed outside the crafts room of a state mental institution.

Not that the FAA said precisely that; federal agencies, you must remember, are not allowed to speak English.

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