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Travel and You

Skies Find Safety in the Numbers

June 22, 1986|TONI TAYLOR | Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles.

There can be no doubt at all that, statistically, you're safer flying in today's commercial jetliners than you are in most other situations.

More Americans are killed in pleasure boating accidents each year, for example, than in air transportation incidents. And on the highways, of course, in bathtubs, on ladders, in kitchens and in a host of other seemingly non-threatening surroundings.

But there can also be no doubt that statistics are cold comfort to sometimes anxious people cramming, in their hundreds, into jet-propelled aluminum cylinders over whose performance they have absolutely no control.

Any apprehension that John and Jane Q. Traveler may feel about flying has been heightened by recent reports of deteriorating inspection and maintenance standards in the airline industry.

Lots of Headlines

The Federal Aviation Administration, the government agency charged with policing air safety practices, has generated a lot of headlines, handing out fines in the millions of dollars against several major carriers for violating its maintenance rules.

The most celebrated is the monster $9.5 million levied against Eastern Airlines for thousands of alleged violations. Eastern has taken the unusual action of contesting that fine in court.

From just reading those few facts, you might deduce that Eastern has been flying unsafe aircraft. So how come, in the 10 years since astronaut Frank Borman became its chairman, Eastern carried 400 million passengers with only 29 fatalities? It does seem that the airline can't have been all that unsafe if it racked up such an enviable record.

In recent years this same watchdog has fined such airlines as American and Western, and many others, huge but somewhat smaller amounts for similar offenses against the code.

Inspection/maintenance procedures have not been as tight in the '80s as in previous decades. But it's a long way from violating FAA regulations and guidelines to putting dangerous aircraft into skies.

Why have the airlines not been following the FAA handbook as religiously as they once did? To get to the answer to that question you have to start with deregulation.

A Novel Concept

Signed into law Oct. 24, 1978, deregulation introduced into the air transportation business a novel element--competition.

New airlines, severely restricted during the years of regulation, flooded into the market. They had lower overheads; no heavy, long-term labor contracts; no multimillion-dollar equipment commitments. They could afford to charge a lot less for their product, and they did.

Existing carriers, who did have expensive labor and equipment obligations, were forced to drop their prices to remain competitive, but they couldn't as easily drop their overheads.

Fare wars developed that eroded the airlines' yields and lessened the chances of anybody making a profit. Lower profits created a need to economize. Airlines sold off excess aircraft and canceled or postponed new equipment ordered or on option. They restructured their debts, the way some of us refinance our homes.

But the pressure to cut costs and to increase the productivity of both human and machine was unrelenting. Keeping aircraft flying, always good business policy, became a fetish.

That's when the airlines started saving money by deferring inspections and "carrying over" procedures and replacements. Things that the handbook dictated should be inspected every four or five days got inspected every eight or 10. Gizmos that, by the letter of the regulation needed replacing, were not replaced immediately.

Scandalous! But did they deliberately put their passengers at risk? I doubt it.

In the first place, there is so much redundancy built into modern jetliners that there's very little that can't be done without in a pinch. Each item on the mechanic's checklist generally has two, or maybe three, backups.

Only a Day or Two

So what if the airplane operates a couple of legs with only two of the three, or three of the four systems fully functional. It's only going to be in that state for a day or two.

But the FAA demands that the plane be grounded until that primary system can be repaired or replaced, and failure to meet that demand constitutes a violation. It does not necessarily, however, constitute especially dangerous practice in the airlines' book.

Here's something else to think about: The person who generally has the final say in whether an aircraft takes off or not is the one with the four stripes on the sleeve sitting in the left front seat, the pilot. That man or woman is issued a list of any "carry over" items and can be expected to evaluate the airworthiness of the craft.

I cannot imagine any economic pressure strong enough to make that person fly a plane that he or she knows to be unsafe.

Encouraging Signs

Whatever the airlines may or may not have been doing recently, there are encouraging signs that they are starting to tighten again.

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