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.

Here's what the feds wrote: "Individual oxygen canisters are not identified as HAZMAT in the stores area . . . Personnel at C-point had not received guidance on oxygen canisters . . ."

In Columbus, Ohio, a hub like Phoenix, the FAA inspectors showed up from July 16 to 18 to look at the oxygen-tank dilemma.

". . . None of the Operations personnel were trained in the recognition of, or informed of, the restrictions on the transportation of oxygen generators or able to identify one. This included fully HAZMAT trained individuals located at the America West cargo point."

The feds had already discovered that ValuJet not only hadn't properly identified the volatility of the canisters, it mishandled the tanks when transporting them.

Here again the FAA found that, like ValuJet, America West did not have adequate control of its cargo. Referring specifically to the potential for the mishandling of the explosive canisters, the feds found that America West ships company materials "without any accompanying documentation and therefore no control or knowledge of contents."

No control or knowledge of contents.
The oxygen-canister fiasco was so widespread within America West that the regulators recommended four different steps the airline needed to take: All HAZMAT employees needed "special emphasis information" on the danger of the oxygen tanks; all the manuals needed to be brought up to date; company shipping had to cease being a blind lottery; and, since America West was not in safety compliance itself, the airline needed to find out if its employees shipped tanks through other carriers, unwittingly endangering passengers on other airlines.

"The problems identified here were similar at all three hubs and would have to be considered a system-wide problem," concluded the FAA dryly.

Short of a car bomb, we don't know of any peacetime street sweeper that's as deadly as a plane crash.

To argue that the 110 people killed in Florida, that the shocking FAA audit, that concern for the safety of America West passengers are all part of some ValuJet public relations fallout problem calls the question: Mr. Franke, are you some kind of putz, or what?

No one from America West wished to answer this query, or discuss the FAA report.

Of course, it is nonsense to blame ValuJet for America West's difficulties.
The maintenance problems unmasked by the FAA's investigation were set in motion when Franke fired 500 people, including 396 mechanics, last Christmas.

Plane maintenance was shipped out of state to Tramco, a company in Oregon that has dropped the ball.

With Boeing hiring mechanics, outfits like Tramco that pay about half the industry average are losing qualified workers right and left. Tramco's solution was not reassuring.

According to a school representative, Tramco wanted a graduating class of kids to replace the seasoned mechanics.

"They tried to hire as many people as they could," said Cork Hutson in the Registrar's Office of the Spartan School of Aeronautics in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "If we'd had an entire class of people available, they'd have taken them. They are very short-handed."

The reduced staff at America West is overwhelmed, and passengers who assume the remaining managers at the airline can pick up the slack are whistling past the cemetery.

For example, when the FAA talked to an America West manager, here is what transpired: "When asked for the Emergency Manual, the Operations Supervisor provided a book containing only blank forms. . . . He was not aware of the actual Emergency Manual . . . or familiar with its content."

It must be said that no America West flight has ever crashed.
How long will its luck hold under current conditions? And how long can its CEO remain in deep denial

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey