Nobody is supposed to be indispensable, but it appears that former Federal Aviation Administration administrator David Hinson's shoes are proving more challenging to fill than most.

Hinson relinquished his post on 8 November; his deputy, Linda Daschle, made it clear she was not interested in the top job and herself stepped down on 31 January. Since then, in a city notorious for rumours, the matter has gone eerily quiet. There has been a notable lack of names put forward for what has become one of the White House's most difficult appointments.

Exasperated by the silence, two Republican senators have written to President Bill Clinton appealing for him to make the administrator's nomination his 'highest priority'.

John McCain, chairman of the committee on commerce, science and transportation, and Slade Gorton, chairman of the aviation subcommittee, say it is 'unconscionable' that the White House has not yet made its nomination after there has been so much talk about air safety.

'But safety oversight is not the only critical item facing the FAA administrator. FAA reform and funding issues are prominent this year,' say the senators in their joint letter to Clinton. 'It is your duty to put an experienced leader in place at the FAA so that we can make the debate over these issues worthwhile.'

The senators even use a little leverage in their appeal, pointing out that they 'shepherded' the confirmation hearings of candidates for both the Department of Transportation and the Department of Commerce so that they went through as quickly as possible. 'We believe it only fair that you treat our request for expedited action with equal consideration,' they state.

Some two months after the confirmation hearing for the new DOT secretary Rodney Slater, the senators remained uncertain whether an administrator's nomination was even imminent.

However, some Congressmen are already sending out negative signals aimed apparently at the one person whose name has been circulated as a possible candidate - retired US Air Force general Hansford Johnson.

Republican Bud Schuster and Democrat James Oberstar, both on the House transportation committee, have made it clear they would prefer a civilian in the job. 'As we look to the FAA for a more businesslike organisation, it would seem best to have an administrator with extensive experience in the private sector. A career military person clearly would not provide that,' is their argument.

The difficulty here is that Hinson, the former Midway Airlines chairman and senior McDonnell Douglas executive, was a well regarded administrator because of his personal understanding of the industry. Yet, paradoxically, at the same time his very proximity to the aerospace industry was questioned when the FAA found itself under heightened public scrutiny last year. Therefore, while an FAA tasked with becoming less bureaucratic would benefit from an experienced corporate manager at its helm, à la Hinson, Clinton must tread carefully.

Slater, with his background in highways, was the ideal, neutral candidate for the equally sensitive replacement of Federico Peña. So far he has maintained a low profile since his confirmation as he assimilates the intricacies of the airline business.

Meanwhile, the delicacy in selecting the right person to follow Hinson has been emphasised by the publication of a book by former DOT inspector general Mary Schiavo. The emotional text, titled Flying Blind, Flying Safe, accuses the FAA of protecting airlines from any opposition or criticism and becoming the 'champion' of the aviation industry while showing complacency towards accidents.

Schiavo makes some valid points - the FAA's dual mandate of regulating the industry while simultaneously promoting its growth is a clear conflict of interest and was bound to come unstuck eventually. But Schiavo's highly charged, tremulous language weakens the message.

Her personal campaign to right the wrongs she witnessed at the FAA became, the reader suspects, a mite too personal. In describing her decision to resign so that she could attack the problems from the outside, Schiavo describes herself as feeling 'painfully defeated' for the first time. 'I couldn't continue working in a place where all we did was sit around waiting for people to die.'

Despite the FAA's protestations, Schiavo insists that 'planes were falling out of the sky' and she describes how news of the TWA Flight 800 crash prompted a 'familiar, wrenching dread'.

The FAA, she was certain, did not like her or her reports, something that seems unusually bothersome to someone who earlier admits to having relished the idea of becoming a watchdog. And, most deeply felt of all, Schiavo could not come to terms with the idea that the FAA might put a price on an individual's life to help it to assess which safety measures or regulations would be too expensive to implement when weighed against the relatively small number of lives they might save. Yet her argument that life is priceless flies in the face of anyone who has ever purchased life insurance.

To counter the callousness that Schiavo perceived at the FAA, the DOT's former inspector general has championed the cause of the flying public by naming aircraft types she will not board and listing US airlines in order of safety. Southwest Airlines tops her list as 'most safe'.

Schiavo also makes sweeping recommendations which she invites passengers to heed to help them to be more safe in the skies. These include avoiding old jets and start-up carriers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, another key post that remains unfilled is that of the DOT's inspector general.


Source: Airline Business