• U.S.

Is There Cause for Fear of Flying?

10 minute read
John Greenwald

As record numbers of travelers crowd into airports, the question of safety is on many minds. Just the thought of hurtling miles above the ground inside a slender aluminum tube is enough to give some people sweaty palms. Even frequent flyers often breathe a sigh of relief when their plane at last touches down.

A series of crashes has raised new concerns about safety in the skies. Nearly 2,000 people died around the world in commercial air accidents in 1985, making it aviation’s deadliest year. The worst crash occurred when a Japan Air Lines 747 slammed into a mountain last August, killing 520 people in history’s largest single-plane accident. In Dallas 134 died when a Delta L-1011 crashed trying to land in bad weather. Another 329 people lost their lives in the midair breakup of an Air-India 747 off Ireland. In December a DC-8 military charter crashed and burst into flames while taking off from Gander, Newfoundland, instantly killing the 248 U.S. soldiers and eight crew members on board. Then, just last week, Singer Rick Nelson of Ozzie and Harriet fame died with his fiancé and five band members in the crash of a chartered DC-3 in Texas.

Despite the unusual number of mishaps in 1985, air travel remains comparatively safe. The chances of perishing in an air accident last year were 1 in 600,000. That was up sharply from 1 in 3.7 million n 1984, but still compares favorably with other forms of travel. On a mile-for-mile basis, Americans are nearly 100 times as likely to die in car accidents as in plane crashes. Secor Browne, former chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board and now a Washington consultant, calls aviation easily “the safest mode of transportation.” He adds, “If you’re afraid to fly, then you better not take a bath, and God forbid, don’t get in your car.”

Even with its overall record of safety excellence, flying by its very nature can arouse fear. Passengers must surrender control of their fate to the plane and its pilot once the aircraft leaves the ground. And while a driver may suffer only minor injury or even walk away from the scene of a car wreck, air crashes are generally fatal.

A sifting of evidence from the 1985 crashes shows that the accidents have few common threads. Eight airlines and six kinds of aircraft were involved in major fatal incidents. The causes ranged from a probable bomb aboard the Air-India jet liner lost off Ireland, to wind shear–a violent shift in air currents–in the case of the downed Delta craft. Such differences have led some experts to call the mishaps a statistical aberration. Concludes John Enders, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, a Virginia research and consulting group: “It’s a kind of fluke, a confluence of a lot of things. There isn’t any single thing one can point to and say, ‘Ah yes, here’s a new trend.'”

Nonetheless, experts are taking a close look at every aspect of air travel. The growth of traffic since the advent of airline deregulation has created some concerns about overcrowding in the sky. Because of the spurt of new U.S.-based carriers, about 30,000 flights land or take off in the U.S. each day, an increase of more than 10% from seven years ago. The new airlines provide a bewildering array of commuter, regional, national and international transport, and have filled air ports and airlanes with planes of all sizes.

Some critics fear that deregulation may be hurting safety. They argue that the rapid growth of air travel has stretched equipment thin and pushed carriers into unsafe procedures. Says Donald Engen, chief of the Federal Aviation Administration: “We are beginning to wonder whether economic deregulation may have led to maintenance practices that would justify certain fears.” Problems that worry him range from the falsification of records to the use of improper repair parts.

The fleet of civilian aircraft is generally well regarded. While the Boeing 747 was involved in both the Air-India and the Japan Air Lines disasters, pilots still give the jumbo jet high marks. One British Airways captain, referring to the 747’s ability to tolerate errors, calls the plane “the most forgiving thing that flies.” Experts are concerned, though, that some carriers may be flying their aircraft too long. “The problem of an aging fleet is a constant one,” says John Galipault, president of the Aviation Safety Institute, an Ohio-based consumer watchdog group. “Planes are like people–you have to know when to retire them.”

Even the newest equipment can fail, however, if it is not properly repaired and maintained. The 747 that struck a mountain in Japan apparently lost control of its rear navigation system. Boeing has since acknowledged that a repair of the back hull, which it performed seven years before the accident, was improperly done. In view of that, the FAA ordered immediate reinspection of all similar repairs. The agency has been cracking down on improper maintenance practices. Says Engen: “In the past two years, we have put on the ground, or severely restrained, 52 airlines.” A grounded carrier may not legally fly until the problems that led to its suspension have been rectified. Last year’s actions included a record $1.5 million fine for maintenance violations against American Airlines.

The FAA is taking a careful look at the jet engines used in commercial aircraft. Inspectors began fanning out last month to investigate the 20 U.S. repair shops that service the jets. They are particularly interested in the Pratt & Whitney JT8D series, a highly respected engine that powered the aircraft involved in three of last year’s major accidents. Said one inspector: “The series powers more than half of all the jet planes flying in the Western world, and they’ve been flown a long time. So naturally we wonder if we’ve all gotten complacent about them.” Pratt & Whitney denies any link between the engines and the fatalities. “The investigations into these crashes are not completed,” said a company spokesman, “but so far there are no indications that the engines were at fault or the cause of the accidents.”

How qualified are the pilots who fly the U.S. commercial fleet? The rapid growth of airlines since deregulation has created a need for more people in the cockpit, and major airlines have raided commuter carriers for some of their top personnel. In addition, a few pilots are jumping from one airline to another in order to gain higher pay. Warns Patricia Goldman, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board: “The enormous turnover rate of the pilot population results in pilots who just meet FAA requirements. It means crews flying together who have limited experience of working with each other, or with the equipment they are operating.”

Another subject that raises questions is U.S. air-traffic controllers. “We’re on the border in air-traffic control,” says Russell Ray Jr., president of San Diego-based Pacific Southwest Airlines (P.S.A.). “It’s getting close.” Some 14,000 controllers now direct U.S. air travel, down 13% from the size of the work force just before President Reagan fired strikers in 1981. Of those now employed, only 57% are considered fully qualified, as compared with 82% who held that rating before the strike. One possible result: the number of near misses between aircraft reached a record 592 in 1984, and grew at an even faster pace during the first five months of last year. Reacting to pressure from Congress, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole has agreed to add nearly 1,000 new controllers during the next two years.

Safety experts are also looking closely at airports. Pilots consider U.S. airports to be safe overall because local authorities have the money to install proper lighting and landing and navigation aids. Problems are greater at fields in the less developed nations of Africa and South America, which often cannot afford vital equipment. Nonetheless, flyers have raised objections to practices at some U.S. locations. The Airline Pilots Association has asked Los Angeles officials to stop allowing planes to take off with the wind, a practice the group considers dangerous. It argues that the procedure may make it harder for the aircraft to gain altitude. Federal authorities rejected the pleas and have approved taking off downwind for night flights.

Airlines insist that safety has always been their top priority. Says United President James Hartigan: “A good, tough safety program is not only morally right, it’s also good business.” United, the largest U.S. carrier, opened four new maintenance centers last year, bringing the number to 17, and equipped each with $2 million worth of spare parts and a full complement of mechanics. Other airlines have launched new safety programs. P.S.A. began a “no-notice inspection system” last November, in which pilots and maintenance supervisors make unannounced hangar visits to check whether needed repairs have been done. P.S.A. has also installed a cockpit system that projects speed, altitude and other essential data directly onto the lower part of the windshield. The device allows pilots to look straight ahead, rather than down at the control panel, while taking off and landing.

Aircraft makers are adding improved safety equipment of their own. Boeing is developing a wind-shear detector that it will install on new jetliners starting this summer. The device includes a warning voice that proclaims, “Wind shear! Wind shear!” once the plane enters the deadly turbulence, and provides guidance on how to respond. Boeing is also working with the FAA and United on a program to teach crews to cope with wind shear more effectively.

Passenger cabins are also becoming safer. Under FAA orders, all U.S. airlines will equip their fleets with more fire-retardant seat cushions over the next two years. By next spring the aircraft will have improved fire extinguishers and smoke detectors, and by year’s end they will get emergency floor markings designed to enable passengers to escape dark, smoke-filled planes. Still more improvements are on the way. The FAA plans this week to require airlines to carry medical kits for any doctors on board to use in emergencies.

On the whole, the air-transport system can be proud of a fine safety record. The scheduled airlines of the Western world have suffered 138 fatal accidents in the past 25 years while flying 135 million aircraft hours–a rate that works out to one accident for the industry for every 978,000 hours in the air. Most planes are well maintained and skillfully operated. Yet there is room for improvement. Says C.O. Miller, president of System Safety, a Virginia consulting firm that has frequently been critical of airline practices: “Overall, I would say that the general quality of aviation in our country is very good, and in some ways excellent. But safety weaknesses in civil aviation do exist. They reflect the fallibility of individual men and women.” To be sure, what is already an extraordinarily safe system can, and should, be made even safer. –By John Greenwald. Reported by Lee Griggs/Chicago and Jerry Hannifin/Washington

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