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Mary Fackler Schiavo, J.D., is the former Inspector General of the United States Department of Transportation (DOT), where for six years she withstood pressure from within DOT and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as she sought to expose and correct problems at the agencies. In 1997, after her stormy tenure at the DOT, Schiavo wrote Flying Blind, Flying Safe, which summed up her numerous concerns about the FAA's systemic flaws.
In 1987 and 1988, Schiavo, then known as Mary Sterling, handled Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests as a special assistant to then US Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. From 1989 to 1990, she also served at the United States Department of Labor as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Labor Management Standards. She also criticized the work of the 9/11 Commission.
In 1990 President of the United States George H.W. Bush appointed Schiavo as the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Schiavo began campaigns to curb the sale of unapproved aircraft parts. The investigations under Schiavo, by 1996, lead to over 150 criminal convictions and over $47 million USD in restitutions and fines. The resulting prison sentences from the convictions ranged up to five years per person.
In 1997, after leaving her post at the DOT and long before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Schiavo wrote Flying Blind, Flying Safe, a scathing expose of the fraud, corruption, waste, mismanagement, and dangerous negligence in the aviation industry and the FAA as a crusader for flight safety. Her primary criticisms in the book focus on the FAA's reluctance to address its many shortcomings, while expressing her concern that there was a fundamental conflict of interest between the FAA job of oversight and the FAA job of promoting aviation.
In Flying Blind, Schiavo describes how the FAA uses a formula ascribing specific monetary value to human lives, and how the agency allows numbers to decide whether the cost of extra safety is worth the additional expense (e.g., if equipping an airline fleet with smoke detectors would cost $100 million, but would only save 10 lives each worth $1 million, then the expense is ruled out). Schiavo is similarly critical of the internal FAA politics and the FAA's Administrators. She writes, "I can't remember when I started calling these men the 'Kidney Stone Administrators', but I do know that it became apparent to me early on that they were tolerated only because everyone at the FAA knew it was merely time before they would pass."
One reviewer was critical of the book, because he felt that "[h]er fundamental mistake is to argue that the FAA should pursue safety literally at all cost." Schiavo criticized the FAA for assigning monetary values to human lives; however laws requiring cost-benefit analyses (like the Regulatory Flexibility Act) require the FAA to assign monetary values to all potential losses and to analyze the cost to the public if a proposed rule is implemented and the cost if the rule is not implemented, so some of her criticisms would be better aimed at the entire US governmental regulatory system, and not just at the FAA. The book has also been faulted many times for factual errors both scientific and legal.
After the Secretary of Transportation insisted that ValuJet was safe, Schiavo produced contrary evidence from government files. In the book's analysis of the ValuJet Flight 592 Crash, Schiavo reviews evidence the FAA had to have known ValuJet was quite unsafe. The FAA wanted ValuJet to survive, according to Schiavo, and as a result the FAA did not do its job of overseeing and enforcing rules. The FAA later shut the airline down. In 1997, unable to shake off the stigma of the crash, ValuJet merged with the smaller AirTran and started operations under that name. It has subsequently merged with Southwest Airlines.
Schiavo also contends FAA officials refused to believe the US faced a threat of domestic terrorism prior to 9/11, alleging flight schools "fairly well salivated at the thought of getting lots of foreign students, and the FAA encouraged it."
She has represented many of the families who have sued the U.S. airlines involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Schiavo criticized the way 9/11 commission disclosed information given to it during the several hearings. The New York Observer reported: Ms. Schiavo sat in on the commission's hearing on aviation security on 9/11 and was disgusted by what it left out. "In any other situation, it would be unthinkable to withhold investigative material from an independent commission," she told this writer. "There are usually grave consequences. But the commission is clearly not talking to everybody or not telling us everything."
In March 2014, CNN signed Schiavo as an aviation analyst to help cover the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Often broadcasting from a studio in Charleston, South Carolina, she would comment on various theories raised, talk about what might be possible and unlikely, and give her own opinions on the matters being discussed. She received attention from bloggers when, as a guest on "CNN Special Report," she responded to a viewer question posed by anchor Don Lemon regarding whether it was possible the missing airliner had been sucked into a black hole by responding, "A small black hole would suck in our entire universe, so we know it's not that." Schiavo's comment has been described as a "bizarre postulation" as "a black hole would not swallow our entire universe". TheWire.com (which "wasn't satisfied" with Schiavo's answer) obtained detailed reasons why a black hole couldn't swallow a plane from Columbia University astronomy professor David J. Helfand and Peter Michelson, a professor of physics at Stanford University, reasons which did not involve any suggestion that a small black hole could suck in the entire universe. It is of course possible that Schiavo was simply expressing herself humorously, and did not expect to be taken literally.