Analysis: Client Profile - FAA tries to fly right with public and media - Growth in commercial aviation has put tremendous pressure on the FAA. James Bourne examines its efforts to relieve the stress

A defining moment for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) came in May 1996 when ValuJet flight 592 plunged into the Florida Everglades, killing 110 people and leaving investigators sifting for shards of evidence through a snake- and alligator-infested swamp.

A defining moment for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) came in May 1996 when ValuJet flight 592 plunged into the Florida Everglades, killing 110 people and leaving investigators sifting for shards of evidence through a snake- and alligator-infested swamp.

A defining moment for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) came in May 1996 when ValuJet flight 592 plunged into the Florida Everglades, killing 110 people and leaving investigators sifting for shards of evidence through a snake- and alligator-infested swamp.

Questions emerged about maintenance and safety procedures in the ValuJet fleet. Department of Transportation (DOT) officials publicly expressed concern about budget airlines, like ValuJet, implying that bargain tickets might be offered at the expense of upkeep.

Some of the large airlines weighed in with their own opinions, trying to squeeze out competitors while they were down.

However, in the face of continuing public speculation about air safety following the crash, the FAA remained silent.

The FAA oversees US aviation safety, and in that role it is the only government entity authorized to comment on airworthiness.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) leads accident investigations.

It can make aviation recommendations, but the FAA makes the rules. The silence was deafening.

Michael Miller, editor-in-chief of Aviation Daily in Washington, DC, said that lack of comment made it unclear who was in charge. 'The FAA wasn't controlling the message. The whole government approach to that crash was, PR-wise, disastrous.'

Miller said the aftermath of the ValuJet crash contributed to the demise of some small carriers, which was something the FAA might have prevented.

'The FAA didn't clarify that it had certified them safe to fly,' Miller says.

The ValuJet episode exposed the FAA as sluggish and indecisive, and forced changes in how it regulates safety and how it communicates.

Eliot Brenner, FAA assistant administrator for public affairs joined the agency a month after the ValuJet crash. He says most of the media are just starting to understand how the FAA changed its oversight of airlines, but admits, 'it was a pretty complicated notion to get across.'



Managing busier skies

Commercial aviation has boomed since US airline deregulation in 1978.

More than 670 million passengers flew last year within the US alone, twice as many as 20 years ago.

FAA regulation is often a thankless job. Aviation insiders shake their heads when they hear some breathless report about a passenger jet that was forced to land after an engine failed, knowing that even the largest airliners can fly on one engine. Brenner professes no hard feelings toward reporters who sometimes, 'don't know which end of the plane goes forward,' he says.

'The aviation community is very good at educating reporters,' he says.

Spots are often offered to reporters at the FAA's accident investigation school in Oklahoma City, where crash investigation techniques are taught.

'We've had success in getting reporters to understand the how and why of accidents,' Brenner says. 'They become more analytical in their writing.'

The FAA is precluded from commenting on accident investigations because, as it oversees air traffic control, it could technically be liable. Brenner says, though, that he talks with 'responsible commentators' and offers the FAA's insights as a way of guiding coverage. 'Not to slip them any inside information,' he says, 'but to help them comment responsibly and avoid speculation.'



Courting the media

Despite Brenner being a former UPI reporter and political speechwriter, members of the press give the FAA mixed marks for media relations. Brenner was determined to change the FAA's public image as a tight-lipped bureaucracy, and to some extent he has succeeded. Brenner has tried to reduce his 35-person staff's response time to press inquiries, although some reporters still say it's difficult to get phone calls returned.

Aviation journalists at top outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and CNN have his home number and, he says, 'don't hesitate to use it.' The rest of the media can pick up a list of phone numbers and beats of staffers. The agency posts reports online and distributes e-mail press releases.

Brenner has spent part of his dollars 3.8 million annual budget on PR firms for message development and media training. Though he won't say who he's hired, the FAA has been approached by 60 Minutes for an upcoming piece on flight delays. Brenner says the choice of an associate administrator, Steve Brown, to comment for the FAA, rather than FAA administrator Jane Garvey, was a calculated move to try and turn down the spotlight on the issue of delays.

'There's a long list of people I can call on deadline, and they're very helpful,' says James Wallace, aviation reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 'It's a lot better than it was.'

There are still bugs to be worked out. The FAA's Seattle bureau, hometown of Boeing, is 'woefully inadequate,' says Wallace. The FAA hired Boeing PR staffer Kirsti Dunn a few years ago, and she soon left, frustrated at the agency's communications gridlock.

'I get the feeling that FAA people really would like to say more,' says Gordon Gilbert, news editor of Aviation International News. 'But there's something tying their hands. I could count on one hand the number of times in 25 years somebody has called and said 'I want to give you a heads-up.''

Instead, says Miller, the FAA often sends out news after 5 pm on Friday.

'If the FAA was a public company, its stock price would be in the toilet, and it would've hired an outside firm to help it revamp communications, from the inside.'

Certainly the agency has a full plate. Brenner says his department has been showing reporters new software designed to move aircraft more efficiently.

The public affairs division has also helped the administration wring a consensus out of unions, airlines and electronics makers over much needed upgrades to the national air traffic control system, which is known to experience periodic blackouts.

'We've been trying to explain the benefits of the upgrades to travelers,' says Brenner. That may or may not be an easy proposition, some say. 'I don't know if the message is one that could be easily understood,' says Warren Morningstar, VP of communications at the 365,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

'Dealing with so many different constituencies with competing agendas really complicates (the FAA's) public affairs function,' says Morningstar. 'I don't think the public has a strong comprehension of the challenges it faces.'

Brenner might not have to fight the PA battle much longer. As presidential appointee, he's scheduled to leave office by January, and is likely to hand that task to someone else.



FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION

Public affairs: Eliot Brenner, assistant administrator for public affairs, leads a 35-person staff in 11 field offices and in Washington, DC

External agencies: undisclosed

PR Budget: dollars 3.8 million.



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