One troubling criticism of deregulation is that aggressive competition has forced airlines to cut corners, resulting in safety lapses. In 1990, Eastern Airlines was handed a 60-count federal indictment charging it with shoddy and dishonest maintenance practices. The indictments came after years of complaints by the financially troubled airlines' mechanics, who claimed that pressures to cut costs led to maintenance shortcuts and falsification of maintenance records. In January 1991, Eastern ceased operation.
Critics contend that Eastern was hardly alone in its cavalier approach to safety. They charge that the FAA is understaffed and poorly managed and that money shortages have caused all the airlines to relax safety standards. They point not only to increased pressures on the labor force but also to companies' reluctance to replace their aging fleets, the congestion of airspace caused by increased air travel, crowded hub airports that create security risks, and over-worked and sometimes poorly trained air traffic controllers. Yet, statistically, passengers are no more likely to die in a plane crash since deregulation than they were before it. Still, critics maintain that, despite the airlines' and the government's efforts to assure the traveling public to the contrary, air safety is in need of substantial improvements.
Many critics feel that at least part of the problem lies in the dual role of the FAA. Charged simultaneously with promoting the economic health of the aviation industry and fostering safety, the agency is often at odds with itself. In addition, the FAA's budget was cut and the number of inspectors reduced in the 1980s, the same period during which the number of passengers multiplied and the number of air traffic controllers was reduced. Furthermore, unions, which stand to benefit from the increased scrutiny and higher standards imposed by the FAA, continue to be major instigators for change. However, even neutral commentators have suggested that it is time to impose some degree of regulation, in the form of stronger FAA oversight, on the industry. In fact, the FAA has been accused of suffering from a "tombstone mentality" that causes the agency to delay acting on safety concerns until negative publicity generated by a crash forces the issue. Even after safety measures are recommended by the NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD (NTSB), the agency charged with investigating accidents, the FAA has been criticized for not always following through.
Aging aircraft became a major concern during the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1988, an Aloha Airgroup Boeing 737-200, purchased in 1969, lost the top of its fuselage while flying at 24,000 feet. A flight attendant was immediately sucked out of the plane. The plane made a harrowing emergency landing, but not before 65 passengers suffered injuries, some serious. Congress responded in 1991 by passing the Aging Aircraft Safety Act (49 App. U.S.C.A. 1421 note), which requires airlines to demonstrate that their older planes are airworthy. Critics claim that enforcement of the law has been lax and that it ignores other compelling reasons to replace aging aircraft, such as the availability of newer fire-retardant seat materials and of updated seats designed to be more resistant to the impact of a crash.
Concerns over airline safety became even more acute in the early 1990s with a series of fatal crashes. The Boeing Company, a major producer of aircraft, predicts that the number of jet crashes worldwide could double by 2010 if accident rates of the early 1990s continue. Such a projection strikes fear into the hearts of the flying public. However, according to David R. Hinson, former FAA administrator, flight safety "is not a simplistic science that lends itself to easy solutions." Flight safety experts point out that all the most obvious causes of crashes have been addressed with technological advances that include such safeguards as early warning systems for wind shear.
Many experts feel that not enough research has been devoted to the study of the human elements that contribute to crashes. Boeing reports that flight crews have been the primary cause in more than 73 percent of jet crashes since 1959. In 1990, a federal jury in Minneapolis convicted three Northwest Airlines crewmen—a flight captain, a copilot, and a flight engineer—of flying a jet aircraft while under the influence of alcohol. Although this was the first flying-while-intoxicated conviction involving professional pilots, many claim that the problem of alcohol and drug abuse among flight crews is widespread and well hidden. Yet it is difficult to convince companies to focus on the issue of human elements that contribute to accidents. According to airline industry expert Clay Foushee, "It's a lot easier to convince someone to fund a fancy new piece of technology than research into social sciences."
In 1994, five fatal crashes, three involving commuter airlines, brought safety concerns to light once again. After the fifth crash, Secretary of Transportation Federico Peña ordered a safety audit of the entire airline industry. As a result, commuter airlines, which had previously been held to a lower standard of safety than major carriers, were placed under new operating rules that required them to bring their safety standards up to those of the other companies by the end of 1996. Industry experts said the elimination of the two-tier safety standards was "the most important decision affecting the industry since it was deregulated in 1978."
Several other safety and health issues have been publicized. The quality of air aboard an airplane has been questioned by some. As a result of intense LOBBYING by passenger groups and flight attendants, federal law now prohibits smoking on all domestic flights and on many international flights as well. Air quality was again questioned in 1993 when it was revealed that, as a cost-saving measure, many airlines were circulating fresh air into their aircraft less frequently than they had in the past. This led to complaints by passengers and crew of headaches, nausea, and the transmission of respiratory illnesses. Although the FAA conceded that circulating more fresh air would be beneficial, it backed off from requiring airlines to do so, because of the cost involved.
The safety of babies and toddlers on airplanes was investigated after it was shown that a number of them suffered injuries, some serious or fatal, during incidents that did not injure their parents. Unlike adults and their luggage, children under age two are not required to be secured on an airplane but rather may be held on an adult's lap. These "lap babies" are often ripped from the adult's grasp during turbulence or crashes. In 1994, Representatives Jolene Unsoeld (D-Wash.) and Jim Ross Lightfoot (R-Iowa) introduced a bill that would have required the use of child safety restraints on commercial flights. However, the measure, which was supported by the Association of Flight Attendants, NTSB, Air Transport Association, Aviation Consumer Action Project, and Air Line Pilots Association, was opposed by the FAA and eventually defeated. An FAA spokesperson, testifying in opposition to the bill, said the FAA's research indicated that if all children who needed them were placed in child safety seats, the airlines would save approximately one life over a ten-year period, and families would save $2.5 billion in added fares and costs over the same timespan. In contrast to the FAA's findings, a study conducted at Harvard Medical School estimated that one infant a year could be saved through the use of safety seats. The sponsors of the bill vowed to continue to press for more stringent safety standards for babies.
Safety concerns will continue to plague the airline industry, even though the FAA assures the flying public that, statistically, at least, flying a major airline in the United States is far safer than driving on an interstate highway. Questions persist about the FAA's effectiveness in overseeing air safety. And financially strapped airlines, which posted $12.8 billion in losses from 1990 to 1994, must make difficult risk-benefit analyses when contemplating new safety measures.
Some critics such as RALPH NADER, who initially supported deregulation, are now calling for limited government intervention to ensure safety. However, experts warn that the U.S. airline system, which is already extremely safe, probably can never be completely without risk. According to Stuart Matthews, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, "If the public absolutely demands that flying be totally safe, you are going to have to ban flying." Given the choice between taking a calculated risk and not flying at all, Americans, who take their lives into their hands each time they drive, will probably continue to trust the statistics and take their chances.
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