Safety Problems In Americas Commercial Airline Ind Essay

This essay has a total of 2375 words and 10 pages.

Safety Problems In Americas Commercial Airline Industry

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

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.

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