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Safety's Worst Enemy Is a Great Success Rate

July 14, 1996|H.W. Lewis | H.W. Lewis, emeritus professor of physics at UC Santa Barbara, is author of "Technological Risk" (Norton)

SANTA BARBARA — Anyone reading newspapers or watching television over the past few weeks must have the impression that commercial airplanes are falling from the sky like reindeer at Christmas time. It just isn't so.

For the last dozen years or so, there has been about one major commercial aircraft accident a year, some years more, some years none at all. The passenger-fatality rate has run just about one per billion passenger-miles. Since there are so few accidents, each one is headline news. Commuter airlines are not quite as good as the major scheduled lines, just as buses are safer than automobiles. The most dangerous way to travel is on foot. About 7,000 pedestrians a year get killed on the roads, many of them drunk.

On a commercial jetliner, I am far more likely to die of a "natural" heart attack or stroke before landing than in an accident. If I were trying to kill myself (there is no accounting for taste) by sitting in commercial airplanes and waiting for a fatal accident, I'd have to wait in the air for hundreds of years. It is, in fact, appallingly safe to travel by air, compared with all other modes of transportation. Sixty years ago that would not have been conceivable--something has been done right.

So what is the fuss all about, and is the Federal Aviation Administration as inept as it seems? If it is, how has the extraordinary level of safety been achieved? And if we want to pay for an even higher level of safety, could we get there by tinkering with the FAA?

The only way to achieve perfect safety in flying is to avoid it. There is no other way. That applies to flying, driving, playing poker, eating, drinking and lifting Sunday newspapers. Sure, some activities are more hazardous than others, and some are more rewarding. And the alternatives to flying are more dangerous, unless we stay home and are blessed with a peaceable spouse. (There is even a joke about someone who read that most accidents happen within a mile of home, so he moved.)

Life is a matter of weighing the good against the bad, and striking a reasonable balance. The risk of getting killed too soon isn't the only thing to account for. Many of us drive around in ordinary cars, when we would surely be safer in tanks--safety isn't everything. And people who proclaim that cost is no object when it comes to saving lives are thinking of spending other people's resources.

Aviation safety is not a simple subject, to be mastered in an hour by an average lawyer. It is a complex mixture of aircraft design and testing, crew training and skills, maintenance practices, navigation and guidance design and implementation, learning from experience, weather forecasting, and, yes, rules. The FAA makes and enforces the rules in this country, and there is little evidence that they are unusually well-conceived or particularly important. Among knowledgeable technical people, the FAA is traditionally held in a kind of benign contempt, simply because it is always so very far behind the times. There are historical and institutional reasons for this, and they are so deeply ingrained that substantial short-term improvement is simply not in the cards. This is not meant to denigrate the FAA's seriousness of purpose, or commitment to aviation safety.

The FAA computer fiascoes have justifiably attracted bad press for many years, so let's use another example. The first space flight was in 1957, and it was immediately clear that long-distance communication would never be the same. Now, in 1996, nearly all your telephone conversations and television sitcoms are relayed by satellite, but the FAA has the same old system. More than 30 years ago, the military services planned and fielded satellite-borne navigation systems, which eventually grew into the tremendous achievement that is the Global Positioning System, now available in rental cars and even elbowing its way into aviation. While all this was happening, did the FAA have any meaningful plans to use satellites for communication or navigation? No. In fact, there have been no substantial changes in the national air navigation and communication systems since soon after World War II. The technology was crying to be heard.

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