The Federal Aviation Administration is beset by sloppy inspections, lax airport security and disregard for bogus airplane parts, according to a book by former Department of Transportation Inspector General Mary Schiavo.
In excerpts of her book Flying Blind, Flying Safe being run in this week's Time magazine, Schiavo said FAA officials had predicted a dramatic rise in aircraft accidents after the turn of the century, but those data were suppressed.
"Time and again, my office uncovered practices that would shock the public: sloppy inspections of planes, perfunctory reviews of pilots, lax oversight of airline procedures, disregard for bogus airline parts, sievelike security at airports, antiquated air-traffic control systems," Schiavo writes in her book.
"Only with a major crash, only with people dead and sobbing survivors filling television screens, does the FAA step up to the plate and make changes. I found the FAA's complacency toward accidents difficult to accept."
Stifled continually by the FAA in her five years as Department of Transportation Inspector General, Schiavo eventually decided the best way to bring about reform at the agency was to resign and tell her story.
In her book she also charges that a key report on airport security was suppressed by the FAA and transportation officials before the Atlanta Olympic Games.
And she described how her work at the department left her "dismayed, disillusioned and afraid for the flying public."
Schiavo writes that before the Olympics her agents and FAA inspectors attempted to skirt airport security, carrying fake bombs, guns and knives through metal detectors and were not stopped 40 percent of the time, but her report was suppressed to avoid pre-Olympic bad publicity.
She writes that she attended a meeting in which the "FAA declared that shortly after the turn of the century, aircraft accidents will increase dramatically."
Her attempts to view data supporting the claim were met with swift denials that any existed. "But I'd seen them, I argued," she says. "Over the next few years, I came to learn firsthand that, sadly, withholding information was routine for the FAA."
When it came to examining the nation's aircraft, "inspectors did an abysmal job," she writes.
"Countless required or recommended inspections were never conducted, while others were carried out so perfunctorily that they were meaningless, and still more revealed problems that went unreported just to spare the airlines any inconvenience. Inspections of planes, pilots, mechanices and repair stations were so unreliable as to be virtually useless."
She blasts the FAA over the ValuJet disaster in Florida in May 1996: "If the FAA had properly regulated ValuJet, its rapid growth might not have led to disaster." She accused FAA officials of lying to the public about ValuJet's record.
In the wake of Schiavo's campaign, Congress has changed the FAA's mandate to make safety its primary mission.
FAA spokesman Eliot Brenner said in a written statement Saturday: "The American aviation system is the safest in the world, carrying 1.6-million passengers safely every day.
"This year the FAA will spend $4.4-billion on enforcement, inspections and other safety measures, and that will increase to $4.9-billion next year to meet aviation growth and ensure that our nation's skies remain the safest in the world."