Safety Problems In America's Commercial Airline Industry

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1989 has been a year in which both aviation experts and spokesmen. For the flying public have expressed intensified concern over what they perceive to be a substantial deterioration in the safety of America s passenger airline operations. In the first nine months of 1989 alone, there have been ten fatal air crashes involving large transport-category planes owned by U.S. based carriers (Ott p.28). This compares disfavorably to the first nine of months of 1988, when but two such accidents took place, and in fact, it is the highest number of death-causing accidents for the American commercial aviation industry during the 1980s (Fotos p.31). This spate of airborne tragedies has prompted interested parties to ask a series of disturbing questions. Is it now safe to fly on American owned airlines, and, related to this, is it now riskier to board these planes than it was before industry deregulation took place in 1978? What, if any, specific factors have contributed to the perceived decline in the industry s safety standards? Finally, what, if anything, can be done to enhance the airworthiness of U.S. passenger planes and to improve the safety performance of the crews who man them? In this paper, all three of these questions will be addressed, and, without advancing too far ahead, we discover that there simply are no definitive answers to any of them. As serious accidents among America s air carriers have mounted in 1989, a conventional wisdom has supplied a plausible account of the historical roots of the present safety problem. In 1978, the Federal government de-regulated the U.S. airline industry. Faced with an increasingly competitive environment, individual carriers tried to hold down fares by making cost-related cuts in policies and procedures related to safety. Many have argued that, increased competition may lead airlines to skimp on investments in safety, (Bornstein and Zimmerman p.913) by, for example, allowing aging planes to take to the skies following routine inspections rather than replacing them with new craft. But there is an overarching problem with this explanation: 1989 s accidents apart, empirical data suggest that it is currently safer to fly on a plane operated by a major U.S. air carrier than it was ten years ago! In 1978, the odds of a large airliner s becoming involved in fatal crash were one for every million aircraft departures; ten years later, that proportion has dropped to around one in every 2.25 million departures (McConnel p.207). On the whole, it is, in fact, comparatively safe to fly, and even with 1989 crash incidents added to the aggregated figures, flying is no more dangerous today than it was prior to deregulation. The Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and an array of independent air safety experts have all probed this year s major airline accidents. Despite all of post hoc study, they have been unable to discern a common link among them, (Ott p.28) with one major exception. The qualification at hand refers to dramatic increase in the volume of air traffic since de-regulation. According to NTSB member John Lauber, if there is a trend in accidents, it is a trend set by the increasing volume of air transport operations rather than any fundamental deterioration in the margins of safety (Ott p.28). At first glance, this argument is comforting: more flights in the air simply result in more accidents commensurate with higher traffic volumes, so that the impact of de-regulation has had only the broadest and most indirect influences upon the industry s safety record. But to ascribe the recent rash of safety problems to the neutral effect of higher traffic volume in the wake of de-regulation and leave it at that overlooks several critical points. For example, to remain competitive, many airlines schedule flights in clusters for the convenience of their passengers. This, in turn, as Rudolf Kapustin (an independent industry- watcher) states, tends to increase risks among flight occurring at peak times (Ott p.28). Far more worrisome, when accidents for smaller, commuter or regional airlines are factored in, we find that 16 percent of all airlines had safety records considerably worse than the norm, accounting for nearly 80 percent of all airborne accidents between 1977 and 1984 (Ott p.30). These figures strongly indicate that policies and practices by the airlines themselves may have acted as variables that have had a role in recent accidents. There are two major factors that appear to have had a part in this year s major carrier crashes, both of which can be related to cost cutting challenges upon the airlines unleashed by de-regulation. The first of these concerns the planes themselves. There is evidence to suggest that some U.S. airlines are operating a higher percentage of high time or geriatric aircraft than was previously the case. About 2,300 of the 8,000 odd commercial jets flown by major airline crews have passed twenty years of continuous service. Plainly, aging fleets have some immediate linkage to two recent air fatalities. In April, 1988 Aloha Airlines 737 experienced a structural collapse; a huge section of the upper fuselage peeled off; one flight attendant was killed and sixty-one passengers were injured. The aircraft in question, investigators found, had logged some 90,000 take-off/landing duty cycle, the second highest number recorded by any jetliner operating in the free world. Eight months later, with the Aloha case still under study, a United Airlines 747 bound for Honolulu literally disintegrated in the air over the Pacific Ocean, resulting in nine deaths. This craft was another veteran plane, one that had a maintenance record suggesting increasing safety problems. Clearly, there is an economic motive behind airline operation of geriatric planes. A Boeing 737, for example, cost around $25 million at present, so that, it is in the economic interest of an airline to prolong the life of its current fleet if it can do so at reasonable cost and without compromising safety. In the opinion of some critics, given the competitive pressures of a de-regulated market environment, some airlines are paying too much attention to this economic imperative, and, conversely, too little care to the maintenance of adequate safety standards. Most jet transport accidents are not the result of equipment failure; a full two-thirds can be attributed to human error. At present, all U.S. air carriers, major airlines and regionals alike, are facing a reduced pool of qualified pilots and flight personnel to staff their crews. De-regulation has meant a higher level of demand for a finite number of qualified crew members, and, at the same time, the number of potential crew members leaving the nation s armed forces (the traditional mainstay of new hires for the airlines) has dropped sharply in recent years. As has been noted in a recent issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology: the major airlines are reported to be drastically reducing the amount of flying time they require from applicants, and while there is no shortage of applicants (there is) a shortage of highly qualified ones (Pilot Turnover p.91). Inexperienced pilots tend to make more mistakes than their veteran counterparts, so that the labor demand growth that has taken place with deregulation coupled with a reduced number of former armed forces pilots available may well be a factor undermining airline safety. Having stated that it is, in general, safe to board U.S. operated planes, yet another qualification must be made at this juncture. Smaller carriers, flying short routes and known as commuter airlines have much worse safety records than the major airlines. According to McConnell: In the past decade, commuter airlines have had 81 fatal accidents, Killing 384 people. In 1987 alone 35 accidents caused 58 deaths. And in the first two months of 1988, crashes killed 22. The Commuters fatal accidents rate per 100,000 departures has averaged Seven times that of the major airlines (McConnel p.206). These smaller carriers, like their major airlines counternumbers, are subject to FAA monitoring and regulation, and the results of FAA inquiries into the safety of the commuter lines has led the Agency to suspend or revoke commuter airline operating certificates on 58 occasions since 1981 for safety violations. The heart of the problem with the commuter airlines resides in the shrinking pool of qualified pilots available to them (Ott p.28). Generally offering lower pay than the majors, the commuter lines have experienced a drain of talent as many of their most experienced pilots have left to take positions with the majors. In 1985, major U.S. carriers hired some 7,600n new pilots; the majority of them previously worked for commuter airlines (McConnel p.209). At the same time, willingness of the majors to accept less qualified pilots from sources apart from the regionals has decreased the quality of regional hires yet another notch (Pilot Turnover p.91). The trend toward less experienced crews in this segment of the industry is undeniable. The pilots hired by U.S. regionals who had less than 2,000 hr. flight time rose 22.3% of those hired in 1985 to 36.2% in the first six months of 1989 (Ott p.29). In addition to a declining level of experience in the cockpits of commuter aircraft, these pilots face demands that often exceed those placed upon pilots working for the majors. On some small carriers, pilots face several trips a day between under-equipped airfields, and in addition must plan routes, study weather, handle baggage and even fuel the plane. Fatigue can become a factor (McConnel p.207). To fill spots, regionals have tried to lure flight instructors from flying schools into their ranks (Pilots Turnover p.91). Unfortunately, by engaging in this practice, the regionals reduce the capacity of the nation s flight schools to enlarge the pool of personnel available to all carriers. If a shortage of qualified crew members is identified as a factor that has some causal relation to a perceived decline in American air carrier safety, this effect is most acute at the level of the commuter/regional firms. The evidence regarding the effect of de-regulation upon safety for American airlines is mixed, inconclusive, but nevertheless broad enough. Common sense tells us that older planes and less experienced crews will have a negative impact upon safety, and, in the case of commuter lines, the latter has probably contributed to a performance record significantly below that of the major carriers. Given that a case can be made that identifiable variables are now eroding flight safety, the question naturally becomes: What can be done to remedy or, at least, ameliorate this situation? The FAA formed an Airworthiness Assurance Task Force shortly after the Aloha incident, and, in February, 1989, this body issued its recommendations. These proposals generally dealt with the tandem problems of aging fleets and inexperienced crews. Regarding the former, The Task Force noted that in several recent accidents, parts that had either been inspected and passed review or parts that were thought to have an infinite working life, broke down. The Airworthiness Assurance Task Force recommended to the FAA an $800 million program to upgrade older aircraft. The key provision would mandate the replacement of various parts and assemblies at specified time intervals, even if inspection detected no flaws. I

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