A horrific crash rekindles the debate over air safety
THE FEAR OF FLYING
A horrific crash rekindles the debate over air safety
The pictures of air crashes are always terrifying—crippled jets in the final few seconds before impact and barely recognizable debris after the fact. The accounts from survivors and the relatives of victims add human heartbreak to the mangled machinery. And since the advent of airline deregulation in the United States in 1979, and in Canada in 1988, every major air disaster, including the Sept. 8 crash of a USAir Boeing 737 jet near Pittsburgh that killed all 127 passengers and five crew members on board, has rekindled a heated debate over whether or not deregulation has had an impact on safety. On one side, consumer advocates and other critics say that intense competition is forcing airlines to cut comers on safety. On the other side, airline executives and government regulators point out that fatality rates have declined since deregulation and plead with the public not to panic. Following the Pittsburgh crash, USAir CEO Seth Schofield was again in the hot seat after the airline’s fifth crash in as many years. While acknowledging that USAir, which has lost $3.3 billion since 1989, is under pressure to slash costs, Schofield asked the media “not to paint the airline into a comer it doesn’t deserve.” He added: “Independent sources are validating what we are saying— that USAir is a safe airline.”
Despite constant assurances from airline executives and regulators, it is difficult to determine whether air travel is as safe as it should be. In large part, that is because the airlines and their critics tend to concentrate on different issues. Focusing only on the number of crashes and the number of passengers killed, the industry’s record is enviable. Air Canada and Canadian Airlines International Ltd. have had no fatal accidents on passenger flights in a decade. Over the same period, there have been an average of four fatal crashes a year among major U.S. carriers, with about 100 passengers a year losing their lives. “In the United States, 50,000 people die every year in highway accidents,” says John Crichton, president of the Air Transport Association of Canada, a lobby group that represents Air Canada and Canadian Airlines, as well as smaller Canadian carriers. “Flying is not a risky proposition. There is a greater sta-
tistical risk in driving to the airport.” Crichton, like other industry executives, also points out that only restrictions on fares and routes were eased under deregulation, not safety standards.
But consumer advocates say fatality statistics and government rule books only tell part of the story. They argue that intense price competition and massive financial losses suffered by almost all carriers since deregulation have prompted them to resist new standards that could save more lives. Alex Richman, a retired psychiatrist who lives in Halifax, and his wife, Shifra, lost their son David, then 34, on Feb. 1, 1991, when he was one of 34 passengers killed when a USAir 737 jet collided with a commuter plane while landing at Los Angeles International Airport. According to a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board report, several factors contributed to the accident. But 67 passengers and crew members survived. Alex Richman is now a member of the International Air Disaster Coalition, a consumer advocacy group. He says his son’s death certificate shows that he died from inhaling cyanide and carbon monoxide gases. The toxic fumes, Richman says, came from the burning plastic lining of the jet’s interior cabin—even though I the U.S. Federal Aviation AdminisI tration (FAA) had recommended in 1989 that less toxic materials be used. “All planes built since 1989 I use the new materials,” says Richman, “but because of complaints from the airlines about costs, the FAA did not require older planes to be retrofitted.” Still, looking at all the fatal accidents among North American carriers over the past decade, including the five most recent USAir crashes, no trend or pattern of neglect emerges. Last week, as volunteers collected pieces of human remains scattered across the ravine north of Pittsburgh where USAir flight 427 nose-dived into the ground, investigators searched for clues that could explain why the twin-engine 737 jet suddenly plummeted from about 6,000 feet during its airport approach. A federal aviation official in Seattle said that in recent months the plane had been subjected to repeated inspections to ensure that it was free of possible problems that have occurred in some 737s involving the rudder.
USAir, with $9.5 billion in revenues last year, is the sixth-largest carrier in the United States. In Canada, it flies between U.S. cities and Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. In the days following the crash, travel agents reported a flood of USAir cancellations. USAir spokesman Dave Shipley confirmed
that bookings had declined. He also acknowledged that the panic was more severe this time than after the four previous USAir crashes. “It’s because of all the publicity,” Shipley said.
But the Pittsburgh crash bore no resemblance to any of the airline’s previous disasters, including two others involving 737s. In Canada, only two airlines fly 737s. NWTAir of Yellowknife has three 737s and Calgarybased Canadian Airlines has 46 737s in its 80aircraft fleet. There have been a number of nonfatal accidents involving 737s in Canada, including an incident at Calgary’s airport last year in which a bird struck one owned by Canadian Airlines. But the only major crash occurred in 1978 when a Pacific Western Airlines 737 attempted to land during a snowstorm at Cranbrook, B.C., killing 43 of 49 people aboard.
The impact of cost pressures on safety is also difficult to gauge. Air Canada and PWA Corp., the parent company of Canadian Airlines, both suffered huge losses following deregulation. From 1989 to 1993, the two together have lost more than $2 billion. But this year, both airlines have rebounded. Air Canada’s operating profit for the second quarter ended June 30 was $61 million on revenues of $966 million, while PWA posted a $31.6-million operating profit on revenues of $726.9 million. To stem their losses, both airlines have slashed their payrolls—including maintenance staff.
Some maintenance crew members complain that they are having trouble keeping up with the workload. “The mechanics are overburdened—too much responsibility, too much work,” says one worker at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, who asked not to be identified. He adds that repair crews used to have as much as a day for scheduled checks of aircraft. Now, he says, they often have six or seven hours. But the worker concedes that the impact on safety has probably been minimal. “There’s no cause for concern, safety-wise,” he says. “You may find that out of 10 coffee makers, six are repaired, four aren’t. But anything that’s critical to flight safety, flight control, engines, that’s a priority.”
Speaking on behalf of the airlines, Air Transport Association president Crichton says that, while it may appear to be tempting to cut comers on maintenance, “in practice it would be very difficult.” He added: “The regulator has stringent control. And Transport Canada has a policy of stepping up surveillance if they suspect an airline is in financial difficulty.”
But in the wake of horrific disasters like the crash of USAir flight 427, soothing words and statistics have little effect on many nervous consumers. And every time one of those disasters happens, the debate over how much airlines can or should spend on safety will resume.
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