When American soldiers or sailors climb aboard an airplane for a trip in the line of duty, their families and others who care deeply about them have a right to expect that the flight will be as safe as possible. The deaths of 248 servicemen and women in a crash last week in Newfoundland raises the question of whether this standard is being met.
The accident victims were members of the 101st Airborne Division who were returning to Ft. Campbell, Ky., after a six-month tour of duty in the Sinai Peninsula as members of a multinational peacekeeping force. Their chartered plane, a 16-year-old DC-8 operated by Arrow Air of Miami, crashed shortly after takeoff from Gander, Newfoundland, where the aircraft had been refueled.
It will be months before investigating authorities issue a formal report on just what happened. Already, however, it is apparent that the Defense Department must take a closer look at the policies governing military air charters.
Some critics have leaped to the conclusion that the Air Force, with its massive budget, should be able to carry military personnel in its own aircraft instead of contracting the business to commercial operators.
Indeed, the Pentagon should study whether full use is being made of its own airlift capabilities. The fact is, however, that most military transports are configured basically for hauling cargo instead of passengers. It is far cheaper to move military personnel by commercial charter than it would be to buy and operate what are essentially airliners.
As a result, for many years congressionally mandated policy has been to depend on commercial carriers for the bulk of military personnel movements around the world. The Defense Department, making a virtue of necessity, requires that air carriers receiving charter contracts agree to make their aircraft available for military use in event of war or other emergency.
A switch to all-military air transportation would be very expensive--and not necessarily safer.
The Military Airlift Command spends about $400 million a year on commercial charters. The business is spread among 17 carriers--including Arrow Air, which has been in the business since 1981.
Until now Arrow Air, which has made 39 round trips to Egypt since early 1982, has never had a fatal accident. Until the investigation is complete, it would be unfair to conclude that the small Florida airline was at fault in this case.
However, there has been a pattern of safety questions--involving deferred maintenance and inadequate crew training, among other things--that seems not to have shaken up military officials as much as it should have.
Last June Arrow Air agreed to pay $24,000 in civil fines for violations of federal air regulations dating back to 1983. Officials of the Federal Aviation Administration said that there are now five civil penalty cases pending against the carrier.
The military makes some inspections of its own, but the Pentagon basically accepts FAA certification that an airline meets minimum standards for equipment safety and crew qualifications--and goes on to award contracts to the lowest bidder.
As a spokesman for the Aviation Safety Institute observed the other day, this really isn't good enough. The Defense Department, using more of its own inspectors, should take a hard and fast look at the history of contracting carriers and disqualify those with questionable records instead of doing business as usual and risking another tragedy.