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Interview with Melanie Joison, Michael Goldfarb, Paul Hudson

Aired May 27, 2003 - 20:03   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: But first an update on a long running air safety investigation. A year and a half after an American Airline jet crashed near New York's Kennedy Airport there is new controversy whether the disaster could have been averted. Two hundred sixty-five people died in the November 2001 crash of flight 587. Hard to forget those images. After the pilots lost control of the plane, which was an Airbus A-300, and the jet's tail fin broke off.
Now Airbus strongly denies claims it failed to provide sufficient warning about the tail fin. But critics say Airbus should have sounded a stronger alarm after a similar incident occurred back in 1997. That is when American Airlines flight 903 ran into trouble on a trip from Boston to Miami. The pilots of that plane forcibly applied their rudder to recover from a stall, and as a result the plane's tail section exceed its design limits. Now the pilots managed to land safely, only after a terrifying ordeal for passengers.

Melanie Joison was aboard that plane along with her two children. She joins us from Dallas. Melanie, thanks for being with us.

Can you tell me about the flight five years ago. What happened to you?

MELANIE, JOISON, FLIGHT 903 PASSENGER: Well, we were traveling, as you heard from Boston to Florida and all of a sudden, the plane seemed to have lost control. I was sitting with my two children, and one of the kids at the time was 18 months, and she was a lap child. And as soon as the plane had the feeling of losing control, she actually flew out of my lap and flew about three rows diagonally behind me, and thankfully was caught by another passenger. But at that point, you know, it's felt that the plane was nose diving and going from side to side.

COOPER: What was going through your mind at that point?

Did you think you would survive?

JOISON: Well, I think all of us on this plane start praying a lot. Most of us thought we were about to crash. It was a very terrifying experience. I don't think it's something that one can forget.

COOPER: Understandably. Once you landed, once you were on the ground, did flight investigators in the coming hours, days or weeks talk to you about your experiences? JOISON: Well, I actually was pretty badly hurt. I had broken five ribs. I was actually taken off with an ambulance. A couple of days after that, while I was in recovery, my husband got many calls from NTSB. I can't say we got a lot of calls from the airline.

COOPER: Melanie, I appreciate you coming in sharing your experience with us. Just a terrifying ordeal and appreciate you will be to talk to us about it tonight. Thank you very much.

JOISON: It's a pleasure.

COOPER: Well, could someone have prevented the crash of flight 578. That is the question that a lot people are wondering about.

If so whom?

Airbus, American Airlines or government regulators.

Joining us to discuss air safety is former FAA chief Michael Goldfarb and join us from Albany, New York, Paul Hudson, of the National Aviation Consumer Project. Gentleman appreciate you joining us tonight.

Michael to start off, we received a statement from the NTSB, it says, quote, "At no time did the board understand that American Airlines flight 903 encountered loads near the ultimate design requirements until its investigation into the crash of American airlines flight 587."

That investigation was nearly five years later. Did the system that protect passengers, did it fail in this case?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB, FMR. FAA CHIEF OF STAFF: Anderson, we have the if only scenario, we have after each tragedy or crash, where there are hundreds of pieces of information that engineers and managers have to look at. That they said, if only they had the opportunity to bring that forward. I don't think if we're playing a blame game it's going to be useful, and I don't think Airbus didn't do anything it would not normally have done. Never had an aircraft come under the pressure with the composite tail at its design limit.

And Airbus actually controls those aircraft, 25 percent above safety standards. So, it's a highly unusual event, coupled with what happened to the plane, Melanie's story how awful it must have been in the aircraft, and with the crash in New York later, then you put together a puzzle that puts things together. You know, accidents are a series of things that happen uniquely for the first time. And I think in this characters the tail structure as well as what the pilots have done, both in the Boston flight and in the New York flight will be the final determination the board will use.

COOPER: Want to bring in Paul here. Is there enough sharing in your opinion of information between the manufacturers, the airline and the NTSB?

PAUL HUDSON, AVIATION CONSUMER ACTION PROJECT: Well, there needs to be more. The underlying issue is every time there's an air disaster, it's merely the tip of the iceberg. As your story points out, the near misses rarely get covered. For instance, for every Swissair 111 where an uncontrolled fire brought down that airliner, there's 250 emergency landings with smoke or fire in the cockpits every year. And it's up to the FAA to take the near misses and the warnings and to turn them into enforcement of better safety.

COOPER: Paul, I guess someone who's watching this. The bottom line when you're traveling, you hear about cost cutting, about belt tightening in all the airlines, really, not just American Airlines, but across the board it's a tough time for the airlines.

Do you think passengers are put at risk because of the latest round of cost cutting over the last year or so?

HUDSON: There is that potential. Last time the airlines got in financial difficulty, there were a number of cases of mechanics, for instance, cutting corners. The problem that you're highlighting in this story, though, is really a manufacturers issue, and there's only two manufacturers of airlines in the world, Airbus and Boeing.

COOPER: Michael, what do you think, are passengers put at risk with all this cost cutting and this belt tightening?

GOLDFARB: No, I do think Paul has a point, we need to focus on the critical infrastructure that keeps aviation the safest in the world. When NTSB expressed its frustration with the data that it did not receive, that's because they're severely understaffed. They don't have the money to do the research. They don't have the computer technology to look at trends across the industry that would lead to better preventive measures. So, I think we have problems facing us.


COOPER: What needs to be done more man power in the NTSB?

GOLDFARB: I think there needs to be more manpower at NTSB. A lot of money researching the difficult aviation accidents we've to prevent future ones. More money for the FAA. The controllers at FAA do a marvelous job with outdated technology, it's almost heroic how they handle air traffic in the environment that they do. And a little better distribution of financing on the airlines for the pilots and labor force.

COOPER: And we're going to leave it there for another night. Michael Goldfarb, Paul Hudson, appreciate you joining us, thank you very much.



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