Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Airlines and Safety: Watch What You Wish For

Remember all of those scare media stories about how many safety problems there are with the airlines--near misses, pilots asleep, lax inspection, etc.  The implication always is:  GOVERNMENT PLEASE PROTECT US.

Well, now the FAA is "protecting us".  Will air travel survive it.

Objectively, air travel has been SAFE in the U.S.--the last major accident was that runway collision in the Midwest, which had nothing to do with most of the hyped safety concerns (other than an implication that the air traffic controller system is one of those many "dangers" out there).

As the old saying goes, watch what you wish for.  YOU MAY GET IT.

Am I saying that the FAA is wrong in its recent safety "audit" of ailines. Of course not. It is alwyas impossible to say that a safety crackdown is "wrong.".  It is easy to let things like inspection and maintenance slide, and become lax and complacent. 

That I AM saying is that this media/public idea that the government can insure our "absolute safety" is STUPID.  Even to try guarantees paralysis of air travel, or whatever other industry where you are attempting to insure absolute safety.

Is there a way to gurantee close to absolute safety?  Nope.  In fact, I think that approach DECREASES safety in the long run.  But we can make the effort.  Do massive inspections of aircraft and operations EVERY WEEK.  Quadruple the number of air traffic controllers.  DECREASE the number of flights.  In short, PARALYZE air travel.  We MIGHT be "safter" (probably not).  In other words, if we are willing to raise the COST of air travel, or anything else, to a prohibitive level, along with the hassle (loss of freedom)  we can at least "appear" "safer".  Then we complain that the government needs to do something about THAT.

That is why those people who jump on any attempt to "balance" safety and practicality as an evil attempt to "put a price on human lives" are so WRONG.  You HAVE to "balance"--to trade off having a system which WORKS with some theoretical risk (as I say, I think the real risk of ATTEMPTING "absolute safety" is highter, in the end).

But what is the proper "balance"?  Should Southwest Airlines fail to inspect, or the airlines operate planes with dangerous cracks?  Well, no.  At the same time, an hysterical overreaction can totally destroy our economy and our country.

This applies not just to airlines (wheere is the "absolute safety" in AUTO travel, with 40,000 traffic deaths each year?).  It applies to FOOD.  It applies to pesticides used against malaria carrying mosquitoes. It applies to work safety.  You ALWAYS have to "balance" costs and benefits.  That is NOT "evil".  It is NECESSARY. 

I am afraid that we have become so addicted to "scare" stories, including the media addiction to bringing them hysterically to us,  that we are losing all perspective.  Worse, the idea that the Federal Government can "protect" us from EVERYTHING, and provide us with everything, is an idea so dangerous that I get depressed even thinking about how close "we", as a society, are to accepting that concept--including the concept that the government can give us absolute safety.

Yes.  Watch what you wish for.  You may get it (or at least the attempt).

1 comment:

kyla778 said...

Yep, as a result of this recent "crackdown" hundreds of American Airlines passengers were left without flights, and I'm sure most of them would've been okay with taking the risk (considering as you said the risk is in fact very remote).

As you know I am a nervous flyer, but just becuase an aircraft was not inspected by the FAA does not mean it is unsafe; it just means it wasn't inspected by the FAA, and nothing more.  Perhaps it's not AS safe (and that even is a maybe), but considering that plane crashes hardly ever happen (my firefighter husband laughs at the Dulles firefighter crew becuase any time they get to pick up a call in his calling area, they get a little over-eager; reason being they NEVER have to do anything becuase planes just never go down or have significant enough trouble where the fire crew gets action) it probably isn't worth all the hullabaloo.  

On a related note, you'll remember that I wrote a paper for my Aviation law class about whether individual FAA inspectors could be held personally liable for negligent inspection.  I will say the government reports I read on airline maintenance are enough to give anyone pause on whether our aircrafts are safe enough, but the fact remains that crashes just hardly ever happen.  And the fact is the federal government lacks the resources to do this job better than the airlines are able to do it themselves.   And whose to say they don't do the job well; airlines don't want one of their planes to go down, it would be the nail in the coffin of that airline.  Pilots likewise don't want the plane to go down for obvious reasons.