Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, reacting to concerns raised by the Arrow Air crash that killed 248 soldiers in Gander, Newfoundland, has ordered a special Federal Aviation Administration safety inspection of about 25 airlines that fly charters for the Defense Department.
Transportation sources said Dole's order calls for inspections that go beyond regularly scheduled FAA checks into airline operations. The airlines that will receive special attention were chosen by the FAA in consultation with the Defense Department, a source said.
"The airlines to be inspected were chosen primarily on the basis of how much business they do with the Pentagon," a source said. "Some of them are big names and some you never heard of."
Special attention will be paid to airlines that carry troops for the Air Force's Military Airlift Command, which provides transportation for all the military services. The inspections will start next week and continue for several weeks.
The Arrow flight that crashed in December was chartered by the Multinational Force Headquarters in Rome, not by the Defense Department, but Arrow also works for the Defense Department and has a $13.8 million contract with the Military Airlift Command to provide regular passenger flights between Norfolk and Spain and Africa, and between the Philippines and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
George E. Batchelor, a Miami businessman who heads a collection of privately owned aviation companies that includes Arrow, said in an interview last week that military business accounts for "20 to 25 percent" of Arrow's revenue.
"The military business is usually always profitable," he said, while lamenting the difficulty of making money in regularly scheduled passenger service.
Batchelor declined to comment on the Gander crash, noting that it is under investigation.
Since that accident, there have been calls on Capitol Hill for the Defense Department to use "name" airlines to carry troops and concern about the safety record of lesser-known airlines generally.
Last June, Arrow paid the FAA $34,000 in civil penalties to settle charges of safety violations that the FAA uncovered during a special inspection of all airlines, which Dole had ordered. The violations ranged from "failing to perform maintenance and preventive maintenance of aircraft" to inadequate record-keeping, FAA documents show. As part of the settlement agreement, Arrow did not admit to havingviolated any regulations.
Last week, a special six-member FAA team completed an intensive inspection at Batch-Air, a Batchelor company that performs general repairs and heavy engine maintenance for Arrow and other airlines at Miami International Airport. The FAA told Batchelor, he said, and FAA officials confirmed, that the repair facility was in top condition.
The Air Force is paying civilian airlines $424 million this year for passenger and freight service, a spokesman said after the Arrow crash. Airlines are selected by competitive bids and must prove they meet FAA safety requirements.
Seventeen U.S. carriers are under contract to the Air Force, including such well-known names as Northwest and United, and lesser-known names such as Arrow and Rich International. They carried 1.2 million passengers last year, according to the Air Force.