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  • Airline Safety: The Deregulation Critics Were Wrong

    It could have been a tragedy, but wasn’t.  After yesterday’s dramatic Hudson River crash landing of a US Airways jet, all 155 passengers and crew made it back to shore safely.   Much of the credit goes to the plane’s pilot, who managed to maneuver the plane safely down.   But the incident also illustrates the breathtaking, long-term improvements in safety that have taken place in the airline industry. 

    It’s exactly the sort of good news that is too often ignored by the media.  Despite the vast media coverage given to aviation accidents, the aviation industry has achieved breathtaking success in improving air safety.  In the more than 100 years since Orville and Wilbur’s first flight – which ended with a crash – aviation accident rates have dropped exponentially.  (Here’s more detail on that progress).  Amazingly, according to figures released earlier this week, there have no fatal airline accidents on a U.S. carrier since 2006 – the longest such period in history.

    This record was achieved despite the grim warnings of many so-called experts that airline deregulation would usher in an era of aviation carnage. Faced with competition, they argued, airlines would cut corners on safety in order to cut costs.  

    Such arguments persisted for years.  In 1986, for example, former pilot John Nance wrote in his widely publicized book, Blind Trust:

    The ultimate cost of … [deregulation] may be measurable in more than services lost and leg room sacrificed.  The true cost may be paid in passenger lives, because through haste and ignorance, Congress has inadvertently degraded airline safety.

    Nance and the others were massively wrong.

    This doesn’t mean that deregulation itself necessarily enhanced air safety. The broad trend line of safety improvement, in fact, seems to have continued at more or less the same rate before and after deregulation. In fact, it may be impossible to say with precision what would have happened had there been no reform. What is clear, however, is that the grim predictions of disaster by market opponents did not come true.

    Why were they wrong? One reason is that the gloomsayers misread the incentives facing businesses in a competitive market. Rather than scrimp on safety measures to gain short-term profits, airlines have found it even more in their interest to ensure the safety of their passengers. Simply put, no one makes money by putting passengers in danger. In short, markets provide what consumers demand — and air travelers demand safety most of all.

    There is, of course, room for improvement in air travel safety: in preventing crashes, and in ensuring security in the post-Sept. 11 world. But we can also stop to take pride in the safety achievements of the past century, and the inventors and entrepreneurs who made it possible.

    Posted in Economics [slideshow_deploy]

    6 Responses to Airline Safety: The Deregulation Critics Were Wrong

    1. Paul Pinkstaff, Atla says:

      As a commercial and military pilot, I am grateful for the dramatic decline in fatalities from aviation accidents. However, placing any of that credit in the lap of commercial aviation management/maintenance is a mistake. Rather, better built airplanes and well trained pilots )pilots train pilots) are the primary contributors to this welcome change. I believe these two factors mask substandard maintenance and cost-cutting measures instituted by the airlines (and military).

      Today's state of the art aircraft have extremely low systems failure rates. When systems do fail, errors are often automatically handled by computers, with pilots simply following clean-up checklists. Take for example the A320, the aircraft which ditched in the Hudson has multiple flight control computers and built in back-up systems. The displays on this aircraft would have directed the pilots what actions to take with the engine failures,automatically configured the aircraft for emergency hydraulic power, and then provided a safe airspeed and even flight path angle to follow. I am not all detracting from the aircrew performance. It was textbook ditching and this incident will no-doubt become "the" training example of "how-to". For those older aircraft, well-trained aircrews have are a necessity when disaster strikes.

      The hand-eye coordination and ability to rapidly solve 4 dimensional problems, characteristic of todays X-Box generation, has prepared them well for an aviation career. Formal aviation training is often just fine-tuning and man-machine acclimatization. We have today a situation where our senior pilots are highly skilled through experience and longevity. Too, they often command the newest and most reliable aircraft. Our most junior pilots are those x-boxers mentioned earlier. Cockpits are largely manned with most skilled pilots the industry has ever seen.

      We are seeing a huge increase in hull losses with no fatalities. Five for FEDEX in five years, two for USAirways recently, Southwest, and American. This is directly attributable to well trained pilots and better built aircraft.

      Without any empirical data, I can only give eye witness testimony to the erosion of aviation maintenance standards. I see mechanics in both the military and commercial sectors who show up and have absolutely no clue what they are doing. They are not checked out in the particular aircraft and often are generalists. The ground or ramp workers are often minimum wage, unskilled workers. These are the folks that will be first responders for a fire "in the chalks" or aircraft evacuation on the ramp. They also have minimal background checks and have unfettered access to aircraft baggage areas. Scary.

      Just a few ramblings from my recliner this am.

      v/r

      Paul R Pinkstaff

    2. Mont Smith, Washingt says:

      Thank you, James Gattuso! The mainstream media is quick to pile on with all of the "talking heads" who immediately tie together "more training" with the highly successful ditching in the Hudson. I've been an aviation safety practitioner for 38 years.

      No one is disclaiming the captain's expert airmanship…the entire crew did a fine job. But why isn’t anyone addressing the threat? Birds can be successfully managed with more emphasis on effective airport wildlife management plans that are already mandated by Federal Aviation Regulation 14USC139? USDA APHIS Wildlife Services needs help. Their few expert wildlife biologists are overwhelmed by the recent population explosion of large flocking and migrating birds that weigh from 9 to 22 pounds! There are a plethora of means available to deny these birds the "attractants" (food and water) near or on our airports. What is needed is money to employ the strategies USDA recommends.

      Let's quit worrying about applying more and more ditching training to aircrews and concentrate on reducing the threat (hazard).

    3. Lori Levi, MI says:

      This is just amazing as always. The dems fight for 200, 000 earmarks to preserve birds that are a direct threat to airline and peoples safeties. This is just as offensive and mindboggling as wanting to extend U.S. citizens "rights" to terrorist out to destroy us. For those people who voted for change, we all get to pay for it. Lord help us!!!

    4. Micha Elyi, Californ says:

      Has John Nance publicly admitted he was wrong about airline deregulation leading to an increase in airline fatalities per passenger-mile flown?

      I look forward to seeing the clip on YouTube.

    5. Mike, Hickory, NC says:

      In the true, albeit at one point erroneously too willing to equivocate article above, there is both that erroneous willingness to equivocate and the unfailingly reliable and unchanging principles which nevertheless survive that apparent willingness to equivocate.

      Such unfailingly reliable and unchanging principles are the same as when, about 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson said "Present a problem to a ploughman (plowman) and a professor; the former will solve it as well, and often better than the latter because he has not been led astray by artificial rules", and that continues to be proven true to this day by such as the "batting average" of "the experts"/"conventional wisdom" which continues as dismally, erroneously, and misleadingly intact as ever; be it the "experts say" and "everybody knows that manned, powered, heavier-than-air flight is impossible" declarations of “the experts” and “everybody knows” of more than 100 years ago, or the "deregulation will lead to (fill in the disaster here)" of the Leftist/government elitist “experts” and “everybody knows” of today.

    6. Saloni says:

      I like the blog very much. The airline safety must be improved to that very level at which passengers and other people should not feel frightened.

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