Commercial air travel has become essential to our national life and is generally believed by most Americans to be reliable and safe. Our trust in an exceedingly complex system depends significantly on the premise that competent federal authority rigorously safeguards its operation.
Between 1938 and 1978 that trust was probably justified: Airline economic conduct was strictly controlled by one federal agency, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), and carrier technical operations by another, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) after 1958. Major airlines established standards for every task, from equipment maintenance to crew training, far exceeding federal requirement. A regulated fare structure permitted carriers insulated from price competition to add safety costs to their ticket prices.
But Congress, urged by academics eager to test the theory that competition would correct industry imperfections, thrust U.S. airlines into the free marketplace with the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. Safety became cost accountable. Although its members intended no reduction in air safety, Congress failed to match the FAA's resources to a vastly expanded workload. From 2,000 inspectors responsible for 237 air operations in 1979, for example, the 1984 inspector staff was cut to about 1,3000 to monitor 407 operators.
"In reality," writes Nance, "the FAA is too undermanned and ill-equipped to have any idea what actually goes on at the heart of the average airline. In effect, no one is watching."
The General Accounting Office now says deregulation has made airlines more efficient and competitive, lowering fares and improving service for most travelers. Accident rates for both large and small airlines did decline through 1984. But such reports ring hollow beside 1985's tragic accident litany, mournfully ended only on Dec. 12 with the deaths of 256 men and women at Gander, Newfoundland, in the crash of a chartered jetliner. While no discernible pattern yet links last year's accidents to deregulation, neither can concerned observers remain unmoved by the chilling anomaly.
Accident rates are no measure for a fundamentally troubled industry, argues airline pilot, lawyer and journalist John Nance in a convincingly documented two-year study of airline safety which concludes that: "The level of safety in commercial airlines you have come to depend on no longer exists." Nance earned high marks in 1984 for "Splash of Colors," an account of the demise of Braniff International Airways; in "Blind Trust" he imaginatively assesses a national malady and innovatively prescribes its cure.
First, says Nance, "there is no such thing as an excellent accident rate, and there is no excuse for pretending that deregulation, the greatest disruption of the air-transportation system of the United States in forty years, has done nothing to unbalance its ability to fly passengers safely."
Second, "Deregulation has retarded dramatically and dangerously the spread of a very basic understanding: People will make mistakes; these mistakes can be anticipated through human-factors and human-performance research and investigation; and what the industry can learn from such research can be applied in direct practical ways to prevent those predictable mistakes from causing crashes and killing passengers."
Part of this book's impact lies in Nance's discerning aircraft accident analyses--models of deftly sketched detail, compassionate perception of human behavior, and shrewd synthesis of complex relationships and perspectives.
"Blind Trust" challenges both the received doctrine of corporate responsibility and the operative ethic of unrestrained capitalism. In one industry at least, careless acceptance of unexamined dogma maims and kills. John Nance offers concrete proposals to repair and reform commercial air transport, among them a presidential task force to examine and recommend improvement in the industry, no-fault reporting of incidents and unsafe conditions, realistic funding and expanded powers for the FAA, establishment of a pool of experts rotating from government service to the private sector and back, and better application of the industry's store of human factors data.
Nance's call to readers to write to Congress and the President may yield some good (as may a grumble to the editors at Morrow who indulged the author's curious passion for exclamation points in a text that needs none).
But it is probable that lives will be saved and certain that a superior air transport system will result if the men and women who operate and regulate our airlines read this book and heed its clarion message.
"Air safety and free-market competition cannot coexist in a void. Given decontrol of both economics and safety there will be little of either. There must be controls on safety, and those controls are not by nature a violation of free market philosophies." Well and truly said, Mr. Nance.