Aviation's deadliest year

JOHN BARBER December 23 1985

Aviation's deadliest year

JOHN BARBER December 23 1985

Aviation's deadliest year



It was already a record year in the history of civil aviation. Even before Arrow Air’s DC-8 exploded in the barren Newfoundland forest outside Gander last week, air disasters around the world had killed 1,692 people. And more than half that number died in one two-month period which began

with the mysterious disappearance of Air-India Flight 182 over the Atlantic Ocean last June 23 and ended on Aug. 12 when Japan Airlines Flight 123 slammed into a mountainside north of Tokyo—the worst single-plane disaster ever. The Gander crash also had some sombre distinctions: it was the worst air accident on Canadian soil and it claimed more victims (256) than the total number of people killed on all non-charter scheduled commercial flights in the world in 1984. But in the wake of the Gander tragedy last week, aviation industry officials were already repeating familiar reassurances about the safety of air travel. Indeed, a spokesman for the International Civil

Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Montreal declared: “It is still two times as safe to fly now as it was 10 years ago.” Industry estimates of the dangers of flying do not account for the dramatic images of mass death. Instead, they are based on a complex equation that computes the number of air passengers in a given period and how far they fly.

By that measure, ICAO says that a passenger is likely to fly more than 300 million miles before dying in an air crash. The industry also says that flying is at least 10 times safer than travelling by car. But such statistics often fail to allay the fear of flying that grips many passengers who, in 1985, had troubling new factors to consider. For one thing, terrorists have begun preying on commercial airliners with far more destructive results than those suffered during the first wave of jet hijackings in the 1960s. And the intense competition sparked by the 1979 deregulation of U.S. commercial aviation—a practice that Canada plans to adopt in 1986—has also produced con-

cern that some airlines have begun to trade off safety for the sake of profits.

Investigations are still open on many of the year’s fatal incidents. But experts say that instead of a single common thread connecting this year’s spate of airline tragedies—and helping to explain them—there are, instead, several likely causes. Prominent

among them: equipment failure, bad weather and human error. Although they have yet to release any report, Japanese authorities are investigating the possibility that a botched repair job led to the disintegration of the tail section of JAL’s Boeing 747. And a violent disturbance known as wind shear was blamed for the death of 130 people in the crash of a Delta Air Lines Lockheed L-1011 in Dallas last August. Indeed, the only two 1985 crashes that appear related both involved the failure of Pratt & Whitney JT8D-series engines—the most widely used jet engines in the world. Last August the port engine of a British Airtours Boeing 737 began disintegrating dur-

ing takeoff from Manchester’s Ringway airport, igniting a fire in the plane’s fuel tanks that killed 54 passengers. It was the seventh time in four years that a JT8D engine had exploded.

Speculation that cracks in the engine’s combustion chamber caused the accident prompted the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to order inspections of all similar engines on domestic carriers. Then, 15 days later, the starboard JT8D engine of a Midwest Express Airlines DC-9 caught fire and fell off shortly after takeoff in Milwaukee, Wis. The plane rolled twice before plunging to earth, killing all 31 aboard.

Fatigue: Subsequent inspections revealed no basic design problems in the engines. But they did draw public attention to the fact that flaws such as combustion chamber cracks are common in heavily stressed jet engines. Usually, they are detected in routine inspections and repaired. But some observers are concerned that the incidence of such flaws has reached unacceptable levels because of the increasing use of older aircraft and engines in the world airline fleet. Last month The Dallas Morning News reported that before 1979, metal fatigue and corrosion were responsible for 21.4 per cent of all crashes caused by equipment failure. But the report went on to note that in the four years following deregulation, that figure jumped to 38.7 per cent. And in the past 14 years the average age of the world’s airline fleet has doubled to 10 years from five, largely because new carriers have purchased used aircraft to assemble their fleets. The DC-9 involved in the Milwaukee crash was almost 20 years old.

Critics acknowledge that the age of a plane in itself does not make it dangerous. However, others argue that a recent decline in maintenance standards has made the increasing use of “geriatric jets” unacceptably hazardous. But there are no publicly available statistics supporting the contention and no proof that U.S. airline deregulation, coupled with increasing competitive pressures around the world, has, in fact, led to shoddy maintenance. Declared James Ott, a senior editor with the U.S. magazine Aviation Week: “It is impossible to maintain that deregulation and cost cutting have impacted on safety.” Still, other aviation professionals say that the new emphasis on operating efficiency is encouraging many airlines to perform only minimum required maintenance. Said Norman Foster, an Air Canada

pilot and president of the Canadian Air Line Pilots Association: “When the highest priority is economic survival, then safety must take a back seat, and there is disturbing evidence that the traditional safety margins in the industry are already being eroded.”

For his part, Michael Ramsden, editor-in-chief of the London-based magazine Flight International, concluded that there had been a decline in standards after interviewing several aviation professionals for an article in the current issue of the magazine. Its subject: the dangers of deregulation. Declared Ramsden: “There is no doubt at all that safety standards are falling. In the eyes of professionals, deregulation is reducing safety margins.” Added Ramsden: “It is a very subtle form of incapacitation that statistics cannot measure. You do not get obvious violations, just little failures to do better than the minimum standards, and as

soon as you start doing that you can get some very bad accidents.” Ramsden said that in addition to the neglect of maintenance, several other factors related to deregulation have undermined safety. Among them: layoffs of experienced personnel to cut costs, and high pilot turnover.

For the past two years the FAA has attempted to deal with the problem by increasing its surveillance of the many small charter and commuter carriers that began life after deregulation. Noted administration spokesman John Layden: “We have suspended or revoked more operating certificates in the last two years than we have in all our previous history.” But such critics as Ramsden argue that the task is too large for the limited inspection staff. Indeed, while the FAA employed 2,000 inspectors to monitor 237 carriers in 1979, last year it had only 1,300 inspectors checking 407 aviation companies. Still, the administration’s sweeping survey of those companies last year led

to a special investigation of 43 carriers. One result: 16 carriers—among them Arrow Air and Newark, N.J.based People Express—were cited for various safety violations. And American Airlines was recently fined a record $1.5 million.

Revoked: But the limits of supervision were dramatically illustrated one year ago when a broken stabilizer brought down a Tampa-bound flight by Provincetown-Boston Airline Co. in Jacksonville, Fla. All 13 people aboard died. In November, 1984, the FAA had suspended the airline’s operations because of maintenance and pilot problems. It had even revoked a pilot licence held by the firm’s chairman after he operated a plane “in a reckless manner endangering the lives” of passengers and crew. The crash took place less than two weeks after the airline resumed flying with FAA approval.

U.S. deregulation has already forced strict economies on many non-American carriers. But of more immediate concern to many passengers is the prospect of death or injury in the air because of sabotage or terrorism. Two events last summer—the hijacking of a Trans World Airlines jetliner from Athens to Beirut on June 14 and the sudden disappearance of the Air-India Boeing 747 off the coast of Ireland nine days la\er—have prompted tighter security at international airports. Canadian and U.S. authorities have already intensified their efforts against sabotage and terrorism. Now, in both countries, baggage ticketed for international flights must pass through an Xray screening device. Canadian security personnel do not conduct spot checks of baggage loaded on flights bound for Canadian or U.S. destinations. Declared ministry of transport spokesman Steven Ryback: “Domestic and transborder flights to the United States are not checked unless we have knowledge of a threat.”

Bloody: Many passengers and industry critics are not entirely reassured by that stance, given the year’s bloody record of air disasters. And in a recent brief to the House of Commons committee examining Canadian airline deregulation, pilots’ association representatives addressed the central issue of air travel in the mid-1980s. Declared the brief: “It has been argued that the year’s toll is but a statistical anomaly. But what if it is not?” The crash on a hill outside of Gander last week only added urgency to the question.

JOHN BARBER with correspondents’ reports