The 1980s are unsettling times for airline passengers. Since 1978, when the U.S. government deregulated the airline industry, competition has increased dramatically as companies lowered their fares to attract more passengers. A U.S. report released in August raised doubts about the safety of an airplane’s interior design at a time when many companies are struggling for survival. Then, last Friday Pan American World Airways, the sixth-largest U.S. airline, agreed to pay the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) almost $3 million in fines for violations of U.S. air safety regulations.
During a two-month inspection of the airline that began last March, FAA officials found hundreds of problems in Pan Am’s operations, most concerning its maintenance and inspection programs. Among the findings: certain parts had been used well beyond their approved service life; Pan Am operated planes with parts that needed repair; repairs were made without the use of approved technical information; and the company did not make inspections within the required time limits.
And in one case, a Boeing 747 was flown 18 times even though one aileron—a part that provides lateral control—was out of alignment.
Another airline controversy has developed over seat safety. Currently, most airlines provide only such safety measures as combined lap-shoulder belts and backward-facing seats to flight attendants. In an article in the July 11 edition of The New Statesman, former British airline engineer James Castle painted a dramatic picture of what would likely happen to a passenger in a forward-facing seat in a crash. According to Castle, the person’s head would jam into the seat in front of him and the lap belt might almost cut the person in half. As well, the seats could break away from their floor mountings, unable to take the combined stresses of the occupants and the weight from behind. Said Castle: “Many of the victims of a survivable accident are either burned or suffocated to death after failing to escape.”
Castle’s report coincided with the publication of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board study, which concluded that lap belts can cause seri-
ous or fatal injuries in certain types of car crashes. It recommended that automobile manufacturers install combination lap-shoulder safety belts for all passengers. Airline safety experts say that has direct implications for fliers. According to Wayne Williams, president of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Association, one reason airlines do not provide backward-facing seats or lapshoulder belts is that they fear such precautions would make passengers more aware of the dangers.
As well, Richard Snyder, president of Tucson-based consulting firm Biodynamics International, said the other concerns are that “it is psychologically bad for people to § be riding backward and that z it is uncomfortable on takeoff. Those aren’t viable arguments.” But in the mid-1960s, according to British Airways spokesman John Lampl, Brit_ ish European Airways experi5 mented with backward-facing S seats in its Trident aircraft, and there was considerable passenger resistance. Said Lampl: “Passengers were prepared to compromise safety for comfortable travel.”
Still, Snyder said that neither of the safety measures are likely to be introduced soon because the companies are reluctant to make changes unless they are forced to by law. John Galipault, president of the U.S. Aviation Safety Institute, estimates that it would cost an airline with 200 planes more than $14 million to refit its aircraft. Lampl added that changing the seat design would require almost unanimous acceptance by the world’s major airlines. But Christopher Witkowski, director of the nonprofit Aviation Consumer Action Project, is fighting for the development of a rating system of all airlines to enable consumers to discover which company is doing the most to maintain safety.
Meanwhile, the high price that airlines face in fines may at least ensure that all possible precautions are taken. To date, Pan Am has paid the largest fine ever levied on a major airline for safety violations, but it will almost certainly be soon overshadowed. At the same time, Eastern Airlines is resisting an FAA demand that it pay $11.5 million in fines for thousands of violations. Said Witkowski: “What we have now are airplanes that meet the lowest common denominator in terms of safety.”
-NORA UNDERWOOD with WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington
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