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...
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