Flight Safety Worth the Price


What a difference a year can make. One year ago this month, Valujet Flight 592 caught fire on a flight from Atlanta to Miami and plummeted into the Florida Everglades, killing all 110 passengers and crew on board. Two months later, in July, TWA Flight 800 exploded minutes after takeoff from New York. The crash killed 230 people; only 196 bodies were recovered.The cause of the accident has yet to be determined.

In 1996, 380 people died in accidents on large U.S. air carriers-the highest number in 11 years.

As usual, these tragedies prompted inquiries by government task forces and working groups and studies by the National Transportation Safety Board and the General Accounting Office. But the Federal Aviation Administration, charged with protecting the nation's aircraft passengers, may be forced to move beyond its customary response to disasters in dealing with these studies. That's because a respected whistleblower and a White House commission have decreed that the FAA's reliance on cost-benefit rationales threatens aircraft passengers' safety.

Protecting the Airlines' Purse

In her new book Flying Blind, Flying Safe (Avon Books), Mary Schiavo, Transportation Department inspector general from 1990 until she resigned last July, argues that the Federal Aviation Administration misinterprets its mission.

The FAA's mission is "to stand guard over the airlines," Schiavo writes. "That role could be interpreted two ways: as policing the airlines to ensure safety at all costs or as protecting the airlines from any opposition or criticism. During five years as inspector general, I came to realize that the FAA believed that statutes ordered it to champion the aviation industry." The result, she says, is this: When the FAA has had to make choices between ordering new safety measures that would protect passengers and saving the airlines money, the agency has typically chosen to do the latter. For example, despite years of requests from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to lengthen the distance between planes landing at airports, the FAA complied only last year, after one fatality too many, Schiavo writes.

Over time, Schiavo says, looking out for the aviation industry's bottom line has led the FAA to tolerate rather than correct slipshod aircraft inspections, counterfeiting of aircraft parts and lax airport security.

FAA officials justified their choices to Schiavo as the result of cost-benefit analysis, she recounts: "As the FAA's associate administrator for civil-aviation security, Cathal Flynn, would tell me," writes Schiavo, "the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, cost $1 billion. Trying to prevent another Pan Am 103 would cost $5 billion over 10 years. Couldn't I understand? The numbers just didn't add up."

Schiavo isn't alone in her calls for changes in FAA decision-making processes.

Curbing Cost-Benefit Analysis

Shaken by the crash of TWA Flight 800, President Clinton tapped Vice President Gore last August to head a six-month White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. Clinton told the group to examine aviation security and regulation and air traffic control system modernization. The commission issued an initial report last September and final recommendations in February.

One of the commission's recommendations is that "cost alone should not become dispositive in deciding aviation safety and security rulemaking issues." The item explains that cost-benefit analysis can lead the federal government to underregulate the airline industry: "The rate of fatal accidents in commercial aviation in the U.S. is less than 0.3 per million departures. The rarity of accidents can make it difficult to justify safety and security improvements under benefit-cost criteria applied to regulatory activities."

At a commission meeting in February, Michael Deich, associate director of the Office of Management and Budget, discussed the implications of the proposal: "In essence, it calls on decision-makers to use all available information, not just measurable costs and benefits, in determining aviation safety and security rules." The recommendation is consistent with the regulatory approach embodied in executive order 12866, said Deich. Though the order requires agencies to conduct benefit-cost analyses of proposed rules, it "recognizes that quantifiable benefits and costs do not always tell the whole story, and sometimes agencies should proceed with a rule even though the benefits and costs cannot be well quantified," he observed.

Gerald Dillingham, associate director at GAO's resources, community and economic development division, praised the commission's recommendation in congressional testimony in March. "The commission has correctly recognized that additional safety improvements may sometimes be difficult to justify under the cost-benefit criteria applied to regulatory activities," he told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's aviation subcommittee on March 5. "In effect, this recommendation may increase the number of instances in which the primary factor determining whether or not to go forward with a safety or security improvement is what might be referred to as a public policy imperative rather than the result of a benefit-cost analysis."

What Price Safety?

Schiavo implies that some safety improvements may not be as expensive as the FAA has claimed. The FAA has tended to accept industry measurements of the costs involved in improving aviation safety and security, she charges. "Instead of pressing the airlines to find an economical way to install new black boxes and instead of sending its own investigators to challenge the airlines' assessment of the cost, the FAA simply embraced the carriers' argument that the project would be too pricey," she writes.

Still, the White House Commission's goal of reducing the rate of accidents by a factor of five within a decade will require more money than is presently devoted to the task.

The 1996 FAA Reauthorization Act, signed into law last October, set up a commission to figure out how to finance aviation security measures into the next century. The group will consider higher airline taxes, local airport fees and the federal government as possible funding sources. Many of the White House Commission's recommendations cannot be implemented without additional funding, GAO's Dillingham testified. "For example, the $144.2 million appropriated by the Congress in 1997 for new security technology represents a fraction of the estimated billions of dollars required to enhance the security of air travel. To improve aviation security, the Congress, the administration and the aviation industry need to agree on what to do and who will pay for it-and then take action."

In the meantime, what's a federal traveler to do? One's chances of dying in an airplane crash are slim-more people die in the United States each year by slipping in the bathtub or being struck by a falling object. However, Schiavo writes, "before some of the most tragic, dramatic accidents in recent history, passengers aboard the planes saw something amiss but did not speak up." Travelers may be able to prevent accidents by alerting the authorities when they see snow or ice on the wings of their plane before takeoff, she says. Also, survival of a crash often hinges on a traveler's ability to reach an exit door and get out of the plane quickly. Travelers, therefore, should force themselves to pay attention to the safety procedures announced at the beginning of each flight.

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