You're Stranded? You're Welcome.

A nightmare that never got to 20,000 feet

The government crackdown on airlines over alleged safety lapses fits a familiar storyline: Conscientious regulators saving the public from heartless corporations that put lives at risk to fatten profits. It's a tale that would be perfect for a movie—since movies are famous for taking liberties with the truth.

In real life, this story may not have a happy ending. By forcing the cancellation of thousands of flights, the Federal Aviation Administration most likely did not prevent fatalities but caused them.

Commercial aviation, after all, is by far the safest form of travel. When people can't fly, many will drive. When they take to the road, they're at greater risk of ending up in the morgue. This is the law of unintended consequences with a vengeance.

What was the basis for the FAA's fateful action? Last month it slapped Southwest Airlines with $10 million in fines for flying planes that hadn't been inspected. Then American Airlines and other carriers scrubbed flights using MD-80 jets after the FAA took issue with how they secured certain wires in the wheel wells.

The agency said the wires have to be an inch apart, rather than the inch and a quarter American believed was sufficient. Executive Vice President Dan Garton said diplomatically that the FAA action suggests "a focus on extraordinarily strict adherence to specifics" that was not present in the past.

The FAA was embarrassed by the Southwest episode, which drew charges of dereliction from Capitol Hill, and it reacted with an uncharacteristic display of toughness on an old directive.

As The Washington Post reported, industry officials said that in the past, "the agency would probably have allowed the carrier to make the fixes over a period of days or weeks. They noted that the 2006 directive on the MD-80 wiring gave airlines 18 months to comply. That means that regulators, while concerned about the wiring, didn't believe that making the changes was a pressing safety matter."

But all of a sudden it became one, and the result was some 250,000 stranded travelers. The mass inconvenience would be justified if it meant saving even one or two lives. But unnoticed in the furor is that during all the time these carriers were doing something supposedly dangerous, it didn't cause any accidents. The carriers' definition of "safe" seems to have been vindicated.

That should come as no shock. As a rule, it makes sense to assume the industry puts great emphasis on safety. Aircraft manufacturers have a huge stake in producing safe vehicles, and airlines have powerful incentives not to crash those planes.

A carrier that truly shortchanges safety is not only risking the obvious loss of valuable equipment, hard-to-replace employees and loyal customers, but putting itself in danger of extinction. Get a reputation for recklessness, and travelers will flee your airline like the Titanic.

If greed were truly grounds to dispense with caution, the nation's tarmacs would be littered with corpses. Since 2001, the industry has lost some $27 billion—inspiring investor Warren Buffett to say that if there had been a far-sighted capitalist watching at Kitty Hawk, he would have shot the Wright brothers' plane down. If there was ever an industry that might be driven to desperate measures, this is it.

Yet as airline finances have suffered, safety has prospered. Just in the last decade, the fatality rate has plunged by 82 percent. Last year there was not a single death stemming from accidents involving scheduled carriers. The decline has occurred even as the number of planes and people in the air has greatly increased.
It's hard to believe this improvement stems from the stern vigilance of federal regulators. In the first place, Congress now tells us that, actually, regulation hasn't been nearly vigilant enough.

In the second, it's far-fetched to think that, in a business where there are nearly 27,000 flights per day, the FAA can prevent a reprobate carrier from cheating if it really wants to. The agency simply doesn't have enough personnel to monitor everything that could go wrong.

It may come as a surprise that the traveling public has to rely chiefly on the self-interest of airlines to keep their planes in one piece. But guess what? It works.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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  • ||

    "to shame regulators into learning some" thing.

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA. Thanks. That made my morning.

    CB

  • ||

    Does anyone know whether ANY public transportation system makes money? City buses do not, metro systems do not, AMTRAK does not, I don't think there are any profitable trans-Atlantic steamships (Does the QM2 make money going across the pond, or on its winter cruises?) Everyone, even when they get tax subsidies and even direct subsidies, looses money eventually, on the transport of passengers. Does Greyhound actually make money?

  • ||

    Hey, the FAA was just responding to the market--just trying to keep their jobs. You forget that Important People, like members of Congress and the media, fly constantly, and they need to be reassured, time and time again, that flying is not 100% or 1000% safe, but 10000% safe. The Washington Post had an hysterical editorial on the subject April 13. By needlessly inconveniencing thousands of "little people," the FAA bureaucrats reassured their masters that they are on the case.

  • Elemenope||

    rxc -

    When gas hits $4 per gallon nationwide, we'll see how long the trend lasts.

  • VM||

    what about the amtrak NE corridor? certain routes? certain lines?

    subsidies for roads vs other...

  • ||

    I have never heard anyone complain that Greyhound gets subsidized, which suggests to me that it isn't.

    Ask yourself what percentage of the roads are subsidized with taxpayer money before you complain about those other people slurping at the government tit. Transportation is expensive, but most people will tell you it's worth the cost. And I say hooray to those who ride the bus, take trains, and such: every car off the road makes the roads' users get there faster.

  • ||

    Cables must be separated 1" rather than the 1.25" AA had used? WTF? Never heard this on the tv.

    No wonder tv showed clips of tape measures with no explanation.

    Now with Delta/NWA poised to merge, was the FAA circus designed to cost AA so much dough it would either enter bankruptcy or enter a less than advantageous merger with UA or CO?

  • Let\'s lynch the landlord||

    A pal of mine was stranded in Chicago for three days. He called me to gripe about his lot in life, and it sounded like bedlam in the background. Unhappy stranded travelers. At one point, some east coast accented guy standing by him kept yelling the word "cocksuckers" over and over. My friend turned to him and said, "Dude! you're drowning out my bitching."

  • ||

    According to Richard Branson, the easiest way to become a millionaire is to be a billionaire and then buy an airline.

  • kinnath||

    Cables must be separated 1" rather than the 1.25" AA had used? WTF?

    I expect this was a typo. I can't imagine that spacing the cables close together reduces risk in anyway. I imagine that the FAA wanted them spacet at one and a quarter instead of one.

  • Christ on a Cracker||

    Also from the "I also heard..." Department.

    The most logical expanation on TV I heard was there were "cable clamps" (I am thinking "zip" ties) were required to be placed at 1 inch intervals. Some were found "to be placed a one-and-a-quarter or even one-and-a-half inch intervals. Some were placed upside down possibly causing cable chafing".

    Does anyone have the real story as to what was inspected? Don't be afraid to be too technical. We can handle it.

    Coc

  • ||

    rxc,

    I bet you the Boston, Chicago, NY and DC public transportation lines could easily make money if they wanted to. However, the riders and residents feel that if their taxes are going to go to roads that they don't use, they should also go to trains, which they do use. Look how much the people upstate bitched when Bloomberg tried to implement congestion charging to get people to pay their share of road use.

  • Brian||

    According to Richard Branson, the easiest way to become a millionaire is to be a billionaire and then buy an airline.

    Of course, it used to work the other way around. There was a time where people like Kirk Kerkorian and Howard Hughes actually made money operating airlines.

  • kinnath||

    The most logical expanation on TV I heard was there were "cable clamps" (I am thinking "zip" ties) were required to be placed at 1 inch intervals.

    That makes a little more sense . . .

  • LarryA||

    By needlessly inconveniencing thousands of "little people," the FAA bureaucrats reassured their masters that they are on the case.

    The fact that Congress is in the process of writing the 2009 budget is completely irrelevant. ;-)

    About fifty members of my church choir were in NYC appearing at Carnegie Hall. One of them got back on time. We're still praying for several suitcases. What a mess.

    That makes a little more sense . . .

    I doubt it. This is like the OSHA regulations that require building owners to rip out and reinstall stair rails that are an inch off the required distance from the steps.

    The FAA got embarrassed at budget time. Now they're running around yelling, "Frog!" to see the airlines jump.

  • kinnath||

    That makes a little more sense . . .

    I doubt it.

    I meant that spacing "wires" closer together makes no sense at all, whereas spacing "clamps" closer together could serve some useful purpose.

    This does not in anyway say that forcing the airline to alter the clamp spacing on hundreds of aircraft within a few days makes any sense at all.

  • ||

    I'm not sure driving is more dangerous.If you figure there are billions of trips a year,and trillions of miles traveled I'd say it is quite safe.I think miles traveled would be the best measure.

  • ||

    It may come as a surprise that the traveling public has to rely chiefly on the self-interest of airlines to keep their planes in one piece. But guess what? It works.

    It may come as a surprise to the public that regulators finding "problems" is how they justify sucking at the taxpayer tit. I'm not saying that all regulators are self serving parasites*, but the system does reward finding discrepencies whether they are valid safety concerns or not.

    * Disclaimer included so all safety regulators can delude themselves that they are in the minority of discerning bureaucrats.

  • LoneSnark||

    And yet on the Daily Show and other media the story they choose to run with is a regulator being fired for going public on Southwest and how that was terrible and proved that the FAA was run by the airlines.

    While I am certain that the FAA is to a certain extent influenced by the airlines, they are beurocrats first and foremost. If wrecking the industry would get them a larger budget or more secure jobs then by all means. Of course, I doubt the regulator lost his job because the airline requested it; I find it far more likely he lost his job because he let embarrassed his fellow regulators, not the damage he did to southwest, which isn't really that big an airline to be enjoying regulatory capture.

  • Zubon||

    I'm not sure driving is more dangerous.If you figure there are billions of trips a year,and trillions of miles traveled I'd say it is quite safe.I think miles traveled would be the best measure.

    Check. By miles traveled, driving is 65 times as risky as flying. For any distance that you could reasonably fly, flying is safer. Of course, flying was not necessarily faster even before the items discussed here (drive to airport, check in, possibly check bags, wait, board, taxi, fly, land, taxi, wait, possibly claim bags, drive to final destination).

  • e||

    In the second, it's far-fetched to think that, in a business where there are nearly 27,000 flights per day, the FAA can prevent a reprobate carrier from cheating if it really wants to. The agency simply doesn't have enough personnel to monitor everything that could go wrong.

    See also:

    "Even if (the FDA should attempt to keep mad cow out of peoples' meat|the EPA should attempt to keep polluters from destroying the environment) they don't have enough people to do it."

    I think this is a dangerous argument for Libertarians to make. People might get a wild notion that regulation might just work if it was funded property and not gutted by an executive branch that despises it.

  • Someone who works for an un-na||

    "The most logical expanation on TV I heard was there were "cable clamps" (I am thinking "zip" ties) were required to be placed at 1 inch intervals. Some were found "to be placed a one-and-a-quarter or even one-and-a-half inch intervals. Some were placed upside down possibly causing cable chafing"."

    Yes, that's correct. The clamps are small rubber circles with a steel band that the tightens when screwed shut (not just a zip tie). Although the simple truth is that the AD mandated a Service Bulletin that was poorly written with many things left up to the operator to guess at. Some of the figures include a note to "rotate clamps to allow correct cable slack" while some figures left off the note. The mechanics typically allowed any of the clamps to be rotated - even the ones on the page where it didn't include a note - to make the wire run more cleanly. So the FAA freaked out that a cable clamp would be turned 180 degrees (moving the wire over about 1") even though there was NOTHING the wire could chafe on caused by that movement.

    One of the things the FAA was freaking about on our aircraft was the lacing around the bundled wires. The wires are literally tied together with string, with knots about 1" apart in a criss-cross pattern. The standard practice manual says "about 1" apart", the FAA was using a ruler and making them be re-tied if it wasn't exactly 1". In addition, they required several aircraft to be retied because the knots were tied along the side of the bundle and not on the top. There's nothing about what position the knots have to be in standard practice - they just didn't like it, and it was a fun thing to hassle us about.

    The important thing to note is that this AD was picked not because of the possible danger to passengers, but because the inspector could walk right up to the plane and see the whole wire run when the plane is on the ground, without having to open up things for access. There are much scarier AD's on any number of other aircraft - but you can't just go up and look at them.

    This was a classic example of kicking the dog because your wife just slapped you around.

  • e||

    property properly

  • kinnath||

    Someone who works for an un-named airline, thank you very much for that post. I have been trying to figure out what the issue was.

  • ||

    This totally isn't a diversion from the story about Southwest.

    Nope. Not at all.

    Airlines good. Safety regulations bad.

  • Kolohe||

    I'm going to be contrarian here.

    The Southwest incident also included cases of gundecking repair logs. When the FAA told American that he had a similar unfixed technical issue to the one revealed in the southwest case, he took unilateral action to ground his planes to guard against the possibility that his people were gundecking things also.

    The American CEO has stated overtly in a press conference to say the groundings "are my responsibility." Compare to say the Bear Sterns CEO, who blames all his problems on the Fed.


    And without context, a quarter inch difference may make a world of difference. A 'strict adherence to specifics' is absolutely essential in the engineering realm, and would be welcome in several other fields of human endeavor.

  • Christ on a Cracker||

    Thank you, Someone.

    This confirms my thinking that is a TSA-like "Shampoo bottles of Death" overreaction. I could see issuing a notice to inspect and correct at the next scheduled inspection, but to ground an airline, cost billions to airlines and passengers over a non-issue, is an incredible abuse of power.

    But, after all, "It's All Just To Keep Us Safe" (TM)

  • Kolohe||

    Thank you swwfaua, for much needed context.

  • Someone who works for an un-na||

    "And without context, a quarter inch difference may make a world of difference. A 'strict adherence to specifics' is absolutely essential in the engineering realm, and would be welcome in several other fields of human endeavor."

    No doubt - but in this case that 1/4" has no effect what-so-ever.

    "When the FAA told American that he had a similar unfixed technical issue to the one revealed in the southwest case, he took unilateral action to ground his planes to guard against the possibility that his people were gundecking things also."

    For the record, the issues that Southwest was completely ignoring are much MUCH scarier than the AA-Delta wiring issues. The AD's that SW ignored are known to have caused multiple crashes. This wiring issue has not.

  • Christ on a Cracker||

    I have written a few technical manuals in my time. A the distance between clamps comes about like this:

    The wiring harness design engineer looks at the finished product and determines something like 6" between clamps on this sample is completely acceptable. However, wires get slack, clamps loosen, so 50% over-rating is OK (I assume clamps are cheap). Her recommendation is "Place clamps at 3 inch intervals".

    This is sent for design review. These managers insist on a 50% safety margin, so this turns into a 1.5" interval.


    1.5" inches is difficult to eye-ball, so this is written up at 1" intervals.

    The inspector now can prove his worth by keeping the public safe by ensuring multiple layers of design margin.

    BTW, What is "Gunddecking"

  • ||

    Gundecking is making shit up.

  • John J. Tormey III, Esq.||

    Quiet Rockland
    Law Office of John J. Tormey III, Esq.
    John J. Tormey III, PLLC
    217 East 86th Street, PMB 221
    New York, NY 10028 USA
    (212) 410-2380 (fax)
    e-mail: brightline@att.net
    http://ejectsturgell.blogspot.com

    Sunday, April 13, 2008
    Quiet Rockland Urges America To REJECT Robert A. ("Bobby") Sturgell As FAA Administrator

    In the lyrics of Dewey Bunnell of the group America, from their 1971 song entitled "Sandman":

    "All the planes have been - grounded".

    It's time to bring back America. The REAL America. The FAA is more broken than the cracked airplanes it purports to regulate. FAA Head "Bobby" Sturgell is a losing legacy case - the son of J. Edgar Hoover's personal secretary, planted years later at the FAA, an agency that the powers-that-be assumed Sturgell could never muck up. Well, that failed legacy case named "Bobby" Sturgell DID muck it all up. Big time. The United States aviation system is now at flashpoint crisis. Enter, Sandman.

    Quiet Rockland opposes Robert A. "Bobby" Sturgell's confirmation as FAA Administrator. Moreover, Quiet Rockland calls for "Bobby" Sturgell's SUMMARY REMOVAL as Acting FAA Administrator. "Bobby" Sturgell is an abominable public official. The current regime of the FAA is a dismal nightmare. The FAA is a guileful federal agency still dwelling in the pocket of industry. Together, Sturgell, the FAA, and the airlines derisively and contemptuously laugh at you and me, the American people - the people to whom this country belongs. But no more.

    This spring started with cracked Southwest Airlines planes. The FAA allowed these planes to remain in revenue service. The FAA allowed passengers to fly in these cracked airplanes. And Southwest was more than happy to take money from passengers for flying in these cracked planes. Now but a few weeks later, at least four airlines have filed for federal bankruptcy protection, with more bankruptcy filings that may follow. The airline industry is disintegrating before our eyes just like the tired old defective planes which they pretend to maintain.

    This past week saw record numbers, in the thousands, of planes grounded. The groundings are "Bobby" Sturgell's fault. The groundings are the direct result of a previously-illusory safety inspection regime and the astounding and unlawful regulatory ineptitude of the FAA, now under FBI investigation and Congressional investigation. The results of the groundings to the everyday American, were and are intolerable. Many thousands of travelers were stranded, and we are told by some that the problem may continue through the summer and beyond. This is what "Bobby" Sturgell would have all Americans endure for FIVE more years if he is confirmed as FAA Administrator? He MUST be joking.

    Moreover, "Bobby" Sturgell now threatens our national stability and security. As John Dean observed almost two generations ago at the outset of the long national nightmare known as Watergate, there is a cancer growing on the Presidency. There is a cancer growing on the Administration, and on this country. That very cancer is failed FAA Acting Administrator "Bobby" Sturgell himself, and the rogue dysfunctional federal agency known as the FAA. "Bobby" Sturgell must be ejected. The FAA must be repopulated with competent and honest federal officials. As Senators Lautenberg and Menendez observed in an April 10, 2008 letter to "Bobby" Sturgell:

    "The FAA's hands-off approach to airline oversight has allowed …deliberate violations…, shoddy maintenance, incomplete record-keeping, and complacent oversight practices to fester"… "Why were… potentially unsafe planes allowed to fly…?"

    Instead of protecting our safety like they are supposed to do, the FAA, in continuing complicity with the airlines, threatens hero aviation inspector whistleblowers. The House Transportation Committee hearing on Thursday April 3, 2008 exposed all of that in a 9-hour webcast, for all the world to see. As Congressman James Oberstar the Head of the House Transportation Committee observed, if last Thursday's hearing "had been a grand jury proceeding, it would have resulted in indictments".

    While we find it unbelievable, a few Senators, and even possibly the President, continue to this day to support "Bobby" Sturgell as FAA Head. Quiet Rockland disagrees. We are proud Americans who believe in the integrity of the American system of government. We want national stability, national security, aviation safety, environmental justice, and aviation justice. We're sick of our country's aviation system being laughed at by other countries. We want to foster continued public pride in our government, and a continued belief that the system works - in the eyes of U.S. citizens, and in the eyes of the rest of the world. "Bobby" Sturgell's removal as Acting FAA Head is integral to these goals.

    Even if you assume arguendo that Mr. Sturgell did not himself personally make or sanction threats against aviation safety whistleblowers, the offensive activity occurred at a failed federal agency under his watch - as did all the other offensive FAA activity recently unearthed. The April 3 House hearing chronicled many other of "Bobby" Sturgell's FAA failures. During that hearing we also learned that circa 2003 the FAA launched a "Partnership Program" wherein individuals spent months hand-delivering packets to airlines, happily announcing that airlines had become the "customers" and "clients" of the FAA. That's flat wrong. WE THE PEOPLE are the customers of the FAA. The FAA is supposed to regulate the airlines. The FAA is not supposed to kiss the backsides of the airlines. As for "Bobby" Sturgell's role and involvement in all of this perversion of justice and dereliction of federal duty, one only need note that "Bobby" Sturgell started work at the FAA in the very same year as the "Partnership Program" was launched - 2003. "Bobby" Sturgell is a private dancer for the very airline industry that callously and inhumanly threatens our safety. Never mind fox and henhouse. Just throw the bums out.

    Quiet Rockland urges each Honorable U.S. Senator to further forestall any vote on "Bobby" Sturgell's confirmation. Additionally, Quiet Rockland urges all Senators, and all Americans, to carefully consider the manifold reasons why any vote in support of "Bobby" Sturgell would be antithetical to the interests of this country and its citizens. What we want, is what is in the best interests of the American people - removal of "Bobby" Sturgell from office, NOW. The talent pool is deeper than this. There is more to leadership than rhapsodizing through one's old aviator goggles. We have an ugly aviation safety crisis and scandal on our hands. Let's wash our hands of it. Let's wash our hands of "Bobby" Sturgell and his [f]ailed [a]viation [a]dministration. Quiet Rockland urges all Americans to Just Say No to "Bobby" Sturgell. Quiet Rockland urges all Americans to let all of our elected officials hear that, loud and clear. Enter, Sandman. The further case against Bobby Sturgell is posted at the following website:
    http://ejectsturgell.blogspot.com

    Respectfully submitted,

    John J. Tormey III, Esq.
    Quiet Rockland
    http://ejectsturgell.blogspot.com

  • ||

    Gundecking is reporting that maintenance has been done, when in fact it hasn't. I'm fairly confident it is a US Navy term. It is commonly used in the fleet.

  • ||

    John J. Tormey III, Esq.

    In futere posts, please precede your diatribes with "Spam Follows".

    Thank you.

  • The Owner\'s Manual||

    American's problem is reminiscent of the subprime mortgage meltdown. Reacting to criticism that too many people were being denied mortgages, the industry skewed risk into the ditch and overloaned.

    American is being forced to oversteer by an FAA reacting to criticism that it mollycoddles the industry.

    Compassionate conservatism means screwing the pooch when you know better, and being bitten in return.

  • ||


    Look how much the people upstate bitched when Bloomberg tried to implement congestion charging to get people to pay their share of road use.


    The purpose of the congestion charge wasn't to "make them pay their fair share", it was to subsidize public transit and top up the general fund. Since the charge didn't change according to actual levels of congestion, it was properly a cordon tax, not a congestion charge. It was also an attempt to tax commerce outside NYC, since NYC resolutely fights any attempt to build a freeway that routes around it.

  • stuartl||

    An inch versus 1.25 inch cable clamp spacing? Messing around with working cables is far more likely to cause problems than leaving them alone. Assuming these cables have something to do with landing gear, there is a whole lot of stupid going on.

  • ||

    Seems like Southwest Airlines pretty much illustrates how untrue the whole "no regulation needed, accidents are unprofitable" argument is. There were SERIOUS problems (including problems that had caused a fatal accident in the past on Aloha Airlines) with Southwest Airlines planes and the company flew them anyway. The corporate honchos were perfectly fine with gambling with their customer's lives. Maybe if you were on a flight and the plane started coming apart you could comfort yourself with the idea that you were about to give your life so that airlines could be free of regulation. Don't think so though.

  • ||

    Call me a conspiracy kook, but this whole thing is a little too convenient. Something like 4 (real) airlines have gone into bankruptcy in the last month. The larger lines aren't financially solid either. With fuel prices and labor prices such as they are, airlines cannot afford to fly planes that aren't absolutely thfull. Every single metric of airline service was worse this year. (stuff like canceled flights, bumped travelers) They're cutting any corner they can.
    The airlines will use any excuse they can to cancel any flight that isn't 100% full. From the article:
    "the agency would probably have allowed the carrier to make the fixes over a period of days or weeks. They noted that the 2006 directive on the MD-80 wiring gave airlines 18 months to comply. That means that regulators, while concerned about the wiring, didn't believe that making the changes was a pressing safety matter."
    The MD-80 is 20% less fuel efficient than the rest of the fleet. What really happened here is that some minor problem was noticed, the business people crunched some numbers on the profitability of the flights, and then came back to the FAA and said "This is really serious, huh? Maybe we shouldn't fly these planes until we can check them all. We'll be proactive and let you audit everything as well. Let's make sure the public knows we're both very serious about safety"
    Remember, the other thing the stories have said is that the MD-80's are mostly paid off, so as idle assets, they're not nearly as expensive as the planes that are still under lease.

  • Jordan 6 Rings||

    perfect

  • Nike Dunk SB High||

    is good

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