Saturday, April 19, 2008

There You Go Again

Perhaps it is a pathological ignorance -- it certainly seems to be contagious.

”The last crash of a commercial jet occurred in November 2001... “

That is a quote from yet another editorial in The Wall Street Journal on the subject of aviation safety. Maybe I’m just stupid and can’t understand the English language. “Last” -- “crash” -- “commercial” -- “jet” -- “November 2001.” Am I missing something ?

From Wikipedia:

Comair Flight 191, or Delta Air Lines Flight 5191, was a scheduled U.S. domestic passenger flight from Lexington, Kentucky, to Atlanta, Georgia, operated on behalf of Delta Connection by Comair. On the morning of August 27, 2006, the Bombardier Canadair Regional Jet that was being used for the flight crashed while attempting to take off from Blue Grass Airport in Fayette County, Kentucky, four miles (6 kilometers) west of the central business district of the City of Lexington. “

Again, am I missing something ? Wasn’t Comair 191 a “crash” involving a “commercial jet” ? 2006 was after 2001 wasn’t it ? Supposedly these guys did some research. It says so right in the editorial.

”In our research on the subject, examining available empirical evidence, we could not find any discernible improvement in safety that was associated with regulations...

I wonder how they missed the crash of Southwest 1248 ? Granted, Chalk 101 wasn’t a jet and Pinnacle 3701 wasn’t carrying any passengers but they were still “commercial” and they still “crashed.” I somehow think that the loved ones of the 34 people who died aboard American Connection 5966 and U.S. Air Express 5481 find the fact that they were not on a “jet” relevant.

Perhaps the authors were too busy researching regulations -- instead of safety -- to find all those. Let me point the way for future researchers. is a super site for quick research. It’s obviously a labor of love. Maybe the Brookings Institution and the Wall Street Journal are thrown off by the site’s lack of commercialism. You needn’t be. I’ve been using it for years without any ill effects.

But back to the subject at hand. Frankly, I’m flabbergasted by this editorial. I seriously don’t know if the authors are trying to twist the truth or if they are just that ignorant about the subject -- or think the rest of us are.

The crash referred to in the opening paragraph of the editorial was American Airlines flight 587. The tail snapped off when the pilot made some “aggressive” control inputs after encountering wake turbulence. Halfway through the editorial you read, “Of course, American Airlines and other carriers hardly need the FAA to tell them how to operate their $50 million MD-80s safely.” What’s the logic of that statement ? American Airlines can have an accident with an Airbus 300-600 but not an MD-80 ? Is it a misunderstanding of the respective roles the FAA and the airlines play in aviation safety or a deliberate attempt to confuse those roles in the public’s mind ?

If this editorial is about aviation safety -- the title is “Airlines Are Safer Than Ever“ -- it misses the mark. Badly. It appears to me that it’s just another excuse to bash Congressman James Oberstar’s oversight of the aviation industry in an attempt to head off any regulation that might hobble the WSJ editorial board’s sacred cow -- “the free market.”

See if this line of thought helps illuminate the subject.

There hasn’t been a mid-air collision involving a commercial jet in the United States since August 31, 1986. That in no way should make you believe that our air traffic control system is the safest it has ever been. Safety is not defined by a lack of accidents so much as it is a measure of risk. There is always the possibility of a “freak” accident in a very safe period just as there is “good luck” during an unsafe period.

The “safest period in aviation history” was on September 12, 2001 when all commercial flights were grounded after the terrorist attacks. Everything before and since has been riskier. Make no mistake about it, commercial air travel is incredibly safe. It’s maintaining that level of safety that is important. The way to do that is by monitoring and evaluating the risks. Every person involved in air traffic control realizes that experience counts and that the experience level of the ATC workforce is declining. That doesn’t mean it is unsafe. It means that we should be vigilant and should be prepared to implement programs to mitigate unacceptable risks.

The best example to demonstrate the difference between no accidents and measuring risk is a couple of videos I’ve pointed you to before. The lack of an accident when two airliners miss by 37 feet is not an indication that the system is safe. It is most definitely a sign that the level of risk may have risen to an unacceptable level. That fact that there were two such incidents -- on opposite sides of the country no less -- is an indication that these weren’t “freak” incidents (bordering on accidents) and that we have a problem we need to address before it causes an accident.

There is one other thing to note in that line of thought. If either of those two incidents had been an accident -- if they had hit -- I’d still be able to say there hasn’t been a mid-air collision involving a commercial airliner in the United States since August 31, 1986. And it would still be an empty, irrelevant and misleading statement on which to base an opinion of the safety of our current aviation system.

Don Brown
April 19, 2008

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