Having Grounded the DC-10, Passenger Advocate James Dunne Is Now Gunning for the F.A.A.
Until May 25 James E. Dunne II might have qualified as the U.S. airlines' most dedicated booster. By his own reckoning, he has averaged 240 flights a year since 1948. True, Dunne, 49, is the head of the 19-year-old, Dallas-based Airline Passengers Association, but the former insurance man was scarcely an airborne Ralph Nader. Mostly he concerned himself with matters like obtaining hotel discounts and VIP baggage retrieval for his group's 50,000 well-heeled members. Such contacts as he had with aircraft manufacturers and government regulatory agencies were polite discussions of ways to improve airline service.
Then American Airlines Flight 191, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 bound from Chicago to Los Angeles, inexplicably dropped an engine after takeoff, went out of control and crashed hideously in flames, killing 275. As the shaken Dunne pondered the worst single plane crash in U.S. history, he changed into an indignant activist and galvanized his membership. After FAA Administrator Langhorne M. Bond flew off to Europe in the midst of the agency's vacillation, Dunne filed a request for, and won, a court order to keep the DC-10 fleet grounded until its airworthiness could be established. Last week Dunne testified before a congressional committee looking into the tragic crash and spoke in even blunter terms to PEOPLE'S Kent Demaret about what he views as the dereliction of the FAA.
Why did you go to court to ground the DC-10s?
I was horrified by the immensity of the accident. There were no bad-weather conditions, no indications of a pilot problem, no hint of an explosion. It boiled down to a fear that this might be a basic structural design defect. These planes are just not built for the engines to fly off.
The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board were looking into it. Why did you take such dramatic action?
The pilots, the manufacturers, the airlines and the FAA always have people on the investigative team. It seems a little strange to me that the parties who may be at fault are investigating themselves.
Are you questioning the agencies' integrity?
I'm sorry to say it, but it does concern me. There has always been a problem when it gets down to the level of the certification of aircraft—particularly those built by giant manufacturers, with components such as engines being supplied by other manufacturers. The FAA may be overawed by the knowledge and expertise of these giant companies. They get on a first-name basis, and it becomes a kind of fraternity.
Do you suspect this is what happened with the DC-10?
I can't assign specific fault. It's clear that responsibility is the government's. What I wanted was a quick determination if this could be the case, because then it could affect the integrity of all parts of the airplanes and the lives of everyone flying on them. The procedures of the FAA—putting the planes back in the air before they knew what they had—were falling short of the desired level of safety.
Why do you think they were moving so slowly?
I think they were scared to death that they had messed up in the original certification of the aircraft. I think the record will reveal there is a chronic history of problems in the DC-10 engine-support system. The FAA had said all the aircraft in the fleet were safe and free of defects—and in my opinion that was a plain lie.
Could similar problems exist in other aircraft?
We should go in and make sure that the information contained in the FAA computers is analyzed. Congress must do that.
What additional action do you recommend?
I think FAA Administrator Langhorne Bond should resign. Why did he leave the country to go to London and Paris during the worst part of the crisis? How can a man leave his post? In time of war, he would be shot—or at least court-martialed. Bond should quit.
Didn't Dallas Congressman James Mattox say that your organization did more than the FAA "to protect the public"?
As independent citizens, we did what Congress itself couldn't—we got the planes grounded. We worked within the system. Now I hope speedy remedy can be found so the airplane can go back in the air safely, and the public can fly with no fear. And I hope nothing of this kind will ever happen again.
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