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FAA Must Strike Balance Between Safety, Cost Issues : Aviation: Agency has to justify rules that may burden airlines. Critics say economics carry too much weight.

DANGEROUS DELAYS. FAA's Response Record Under Fire . One in a series

December 12, 1994|JEFF BRAZIL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the Federal Aviation Administration decides whether to toughen airline safety regulations, the agency faces a dilemma: It must weigh the cost of proposed reforms against the value of human lives lost if nothing is done.

A life, the government calculates, is worth $2.6 million.

For example, records show, the FAA passed a regulation in 1992 requiring low-altitude warning systems in commuter airplanes, but only after agency officials determined that failing to act would cost $95.1 million in lives and property--far more than the $29 million for the devices.

When the rule finally took effect in April, 126 people had died in accidents that the FAA acknowledged may have been prevented by the safety equipment.

"The system kind of stinks," said Vinnie Mendolia of Medford, Ore., whose brother, Richard, died in one such crash in 1989. "Too bad something has to go wrong and people have to die" before regulations are changed.

A four-month Times review of government documents and scores of interviews with air safety officials sheds light on a question hundreds of relatives of airplane crash victims and frustrated air safety investigators have asked:

Why does it sometimes take disaster or the passage of years to get federal air regulators to take meaningful action?

Like the causes of airplane crashes themselves, the answer is complex.

It is rooted partly in the conflicted nature of the FAA. Serving two masters, the agency is charged with nurturing the aviation industry while ensuring the safety of the flying public.

The FAA must balance safety against the cost to airlines, manufacturers and others whenever it considers changes in safety and equipment regulations. The result, according to records and interviews, can be delays in addressing safety problems--and more accidents related to them.

"There were several fixes on the shelf that did not come off the shelf until the second accident, or sometimes the third," said Ira J. Furman, a New York attorney who has worked for the National Transportation Safety Board and testified before Congress on aviation safety issues.

"I always wondered why it wasn't available beforehand. And the answer . . . is there are cost-benefit analyses being done all the time."

The FAA's harshest critics don't for a minute believe that the agency knowingly waits for an accident to happen. But because the FAA must justify changes that require expenditures by the aviation industry, the agency sometimes must use past accidents to help make its case.

And once the agency decides to make safety-related changes, it can take years before new rules take effect, in part because the agency must consider the ramifications on the airline industry.

FAA Administrator David Hinson said every government agency is required by law to justify rules changes that cause financial burdens to government or private industry.

To suggest that the practice almost requires accidents is "a bit of an exaggeration," Hinson said in an interview.

"It's just a way for Congress to ensure" that industry isn't "unfairly . . . burdened. . . . But we don't compromise safety at any cost that I'm aware of."

"I think there's this impression that the FAA stands around, waits for accidents to happen and then acts," Hinson said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

The NTSB's Barry M. Sweedler, director of safety recommendations, said the FAA has an easier time pushing through safety regulations, particularly those that are costly to the industry, when it can justify the expense.

"For them to go forward to change rules that they can't show a cost-benefit for, it's very tough," he said.

The point is illustrated by the FAA's handling of a critical safety issue on commuter planes.

The FAA had recognized the benefits of installing "ground proximity warning systems" since the mid-1970s when it required their installation on commercial jets. The devices verbally warn a pilot if the plane is too close to mountainsides or other terrain.

After studying a series of crashes in the early and mid-1980s, the NTSB on Oct. 9, 1986, released a study, saying it was convinced that three recent commuter plane accidents that killed 25 people likely would not have happened if the aircraft had been equipped with ground proximity warning systems.

The study noted that commercial airline crashes involving "controlled flight into terrain" dropped 75% once the FAA required the altitude devices. The NTSB recommended that all turbine-powered airplanes that carry 10 or more passengers be required to have one on board.

But, records show, the FAA and some in the commuter airline industry, while acknowledging the life-saving merits of the devices, opposed them, questioning whether the cost, at roughly $14,000 apiece, was justified.

Accidents continued. On Jan. 19, 1988, a Fairchild Metro Twin commuter plane crashed into a ridge in Durango, Colo. Nine of the 17 people aboard died. A month later, a Fairchild Metro III crashed in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., killing 12.

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