Unsafe at Any Speed?

Why Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is spreading needless fear about air travel

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood can't be serious.

Or, at least, I hope not.

When I had the chance recently to meet him at The Denver Post, where I work, I was fully prepared to endure a healthy dose of rambling about how antiquated, inefficient, money-losing choo-choo trains will replace cars.

One also can be prepared to laugh only on the inside when a Cabinet member asserts, in all earnestness, that cycling our kids to school en masse (and this adult has yet to master the art of driving his kids to school) is the answer to our national congestion problems.

One even could deal with LaHood's hyperbolic statement that "America is one big pothole," because, as anyone who lives in America knows, this is unqualified bunk. Acting as if everything is falling apart, though, is a rhetorical imperative during stimulus season.

But when LaHood berated me for suggesting that flying in a commercial airplane is a safe mode of transportation, I knew he was perfect for a Cabinet position.

In his best Illinois tough-guy form, LaHood was in the middle of grandstanding about the need for new regulations covering airlines and pilots, who, despite those imposing uniforms, according to LaHood, display the accountability of a pro athlete. And if airlines did not hand over this personal information voluntarily, Ray LaHood would make them do it.

When I asked LaHood whether there was an outbreak of gruesome airline calamities that somehow had escaped my attention, he suggested I ask the relatives of those who died in a recent commuter jet accident about safety. Americans, he declared, are demanding more regulation. And he ended with a sarcastic quip: "I'm happy you feel safe."

Oh, I do. Why wouldn't I? There wasn't a single U.S. airline passenger death caused by an accident in 2007 and 2008, years in which commercial airliners carried 1.5 billion passengers. If you are a skateboarder, skier, pedestrian, or train rider, your chances of dying are far greater.

In both 2007 and 2008, about 700 bicyclists reportedly died on U.S. roads. That doesn't count the immense cost of other cyclist-related injuries and the unseemly sight of those preposterously kaleidoscopic tights the rest of us are exposed to.

If journalists transposed LaHood's fears about flying to cycling, newspapers would be impelled to run "blood on the streets" series weekly.

We've heard the cliché a million times: You have a higher probability of dying in an accident driving to the airport than you do flying in a plane. One study claims you would have to fly once a day every day for more than 15,000 years to be involved in an accident—about a 1 in 11 million chance.

Aircraft accidents, though, are between 150 and 200 times more likely to receive front-page coverage (according to some exceptionally unscientific data I choose to believe) than any other cause of death. I will concede that plunging 30,000 feet in a fiery mess of mangled steel holds an exceptional creepiness and is unquestionably newsworthy. Precisely because of this coverage, airlines have an overriding incentive not to be involved in an accident. The public remembers not only the airline forever but also the flight number.

No mode of travel is completely safe. And there is a clear need for an overhaul of the nation's air traffic control system. But airlines, already highly regulated, employ vigorous employment requirements for pilots and spend massively on safety.

LaHood's campaign of scaremongering shouldn't convince us that we need more scrutiny in hiring pilots, only that we need more stringent standards for Cabinet members.

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  • DADIODADDY||

    Nanny, how I love ya, how I love ya nanny

  • ||

    Yeah, it's awesome that he's trying to make people afraid to fly. The airline industry (and it's unions, Mr. Secretary) never suffers from that. This guy is a boob.

  • ||

    LaHood's campaign of scaremongering shouldn't convince us that we need more scrutiny in hiring pilots, only that we need more stringent standards for Cabinet members.

    That would require more stringent standards for hiring the people who appoint and confirm them; you know, like random selection from the telephone book.

  • Invisible Finger||

    This guy is a boob.

    This is Obama's greatest flaw. Almost everyone he has selected - Emmanuel, Biden, La Hood, Geithner, Summers, etc. - is pure sleaze.

  • ||

    I wonder if train fans are confident that ridiculous security measures will never be applied to high speed rail, either.

    True, rail security is low in other countries. But as the GAO notes (page 16 of the PDF):

    Airports in these countries generally have fewer security delays than airports in the United States. According to Japanese airline officials, air travelers can arrive at Japanese airports 15 to 20 minutes prior to a domestic departure.



    Of course, rail has suffered from unreasonable safety (and environmental) regulations too. Rail and air are both much safer than driving, but the regulations are way out of proportion to the risk. I suppose the feeling of control is much of the reason.

  • ||

    Scaremongering from a member of the Obama administration? No f-ing way!

    Wait, you say he's talking expertly about something he is not an expert in? Never in a million years!

    Next you're going to accuse this fine man of being an Obama crony.

  • ||

    One study claims you would have to fly once a day every day for more than 15,000 years to be involved in an accident-about a 1 in 11 million chance.

    This is false. No one has ever flown once a day for more than 15,000 years, but many people have been involved in an air accident.

    Yes, I know what you're trying to say, and it's true -- but you're not saying it.

  • No Name Guy||

    A couple small quibbles with the article: Most air crashes don't involve falling from 30k feet in a crumbling steel tube.

    First - steel is only typically used in landing gear and other highly loaded fittings, such as those that attach engines to the pylons, or the pylons to the wings (as well as fasteners). The vast majority (nearly all, in fact) of the 'tube' that is the fuselage of a modern airliner is aluminum (the 787 Dreamliner, which has yet to fly, of course, is excepted).

    Second - Most crashes initiate at low altitude and slow speed, specifically during take off and landing. Crashes initiating during cruise (e.g. at ~30k feet) are typically a much smaller fraction of the total. This is due to the fact that while low and slow, the pilot doesn't have much energy (kinetic or potential) to manuever out of problems (say an engine failure). Also, there's a lot more to run into or be spanked down by at low altitude (birds, mountains, power lines, wind shear, etc).

    Of note: The deadliest crash in airline history happened when one 747 ran into another 747 while attempting to take off (with out clearance from the tower) on a fog bound runway in the Canary Islands in 1977. Over 500 dead due to a pilot refusing to wait for clearance.

  • ||

    This is Obama's greatest flaw. Almost everyone he has selected - Emmanuel, Biden, La Hood, Geithner, Summers, etc. - is pure sleaze.

    Yeah, who woulda thunk that a politician from Daleyville would do that.

  • ||

    Of note: The deadliest crash in airline history

    Well, the deadliest crash that didn't happen on 9/11/01, anyway.

    Just yankin' your chain, NNG. :-)

  • ||

    Not karma, sir. The laws of irony.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    I caused two car accidents last year on my bike and just rode away.
    Safety=Bullshit
    Reduce Congestion=Bullshit.

  • Chrispy||

    I remember reading somewhere that travel on an airplane is actually more dangerous on a per hour basis than traveling in a car (but cars are still more dangerous per mile). But I can't remember where I saw that. Does anyone know if it's true, or even where to look up statistics like that?

  • LarryA||

    Aircraft accidents, though, are between 150 and 200 times more likely to receive front-page coverage (according to some exceptionally unscientific data I choose to believe) than any other cause of death.

    Two exceptions. Accidents involving even potential injury at a nuclear power plant (but not any other kind of power generation facility) and murder involving an active shooter will push an aircraft accident aside. Note that both are rare, and involve activities that are already regulated, and which some people want to be even more regulated or prohibited.

  • Blank||

    Chrispy,

    In 2005, the per hour comparison showed cars being safer by a factor of nearly 70 to 1.

    Of course, an airplane moves more people more miles in an hour than a car. For example, if the average speed of all air traffic is 5 times that of all cars, and the average capacity is 14 times that of cars, Voila!

  • johnny john john||

    Yah I agree that airplanes are pretty safe, but...

    "One also can be prepared to laugh only on the inside when a Cabinet member asserts, in all earnestness, that cycling our kids to school en masse (and this adult has yet to master the art of driving his kids to school) is the answer to our national congestion problems."


    Have you ever seen the congestion near a school? Parents idle their cars for an hour a day so they can drop or retrieve their kids, because they are waiting to get to the school entrance, lined up with other cars.

    On the other hand, I bet most kids can get to school by bike within 15 minutes. That would be faster than the car or the bus.

    The bicycle is an extremely high efficiency transportation device. The average car must transport around 2 tons of metal to get from point A to B, and in surburban areas will probably get around 35 MPH. In addition, the user must purchase fuel and deal with traffic congestion

    The bicycle will average 15 MPH, weights around 20 lbs and requires only human driven propulsion. In addition, one gets a decent workout when using it. A bike is also a lot less boring to use, as the user has to constantly put his mind to pedaling to get from point A to point B. The only fuel needed for a bicycle is food energy that, according to many health experts, is already consumed in excess in America.

    Finally, the bicycle is much cheaper than both cars and buses. I'm gonna assume a bus is around $70,000. You can buy around 200 higher end bicycles with that money. For a $20,000 car, you can buy 40 sweet bikes.

    Cruising around in a sweetass bicycle in the suburbs or the city is both more economical and awesome than in a car. It would definitely save parents and the government a lot more money if people did cruise around in bikes more often.

  • Falmarri||

    Over 500 dead due to a pilot refusing to wait for clearance.

    That's not true, come on. What pilot would "refuse to wait for clearance." That crash was due to communication error. The pilot heard clear for take off. No pilot would ever disobey the control tower and take off without clearance. That doesn't happen.

  • turkey||

    Planes being safer depends on the metric. I recall the per an hour thing being worse, and maybe per a trip to.

    Although ADS-B for air traffic is being rolled out right now, and that should prevent a lot of collision issues. And the bird stuff is getting better.

  • Rooooooooooosh||

    Ahhhhhhhhhh, we're all going to die!!!! Save us, Nanny LaHood.

  • on the inside||

    As someone in the aviaton community.it is obvious your article is written without anything more than "how it seems from my cabin seat" as your research. The Aviation system is very sick...aggravated by the last 8 years of making "the airlnes" the priority NOT the flying public. The BUF crash (combined cockpit experience of a year) the CVG crash (1 controller doing the work of 3 while staffing required 2) are 2 examples of lax regulatons and the result of running the FAA "like a business" (putting bottom line over safety). The system hasn't failed more often due to the diligence and dedication of it's employees...the same employees who have been running for the exits and retiring enmasse due to frustration and disgust for what once was their proud professions. Mr Harsenyl in your travels you really are as you show in this article ...Flying by the seat of your pants

  • ||

    "As someone in the aviation community?" Exactly what? I'm thinking bureaucrat!!! Probably a staffer for some low-life Congressman on some transportation sub-committee.

    I'm right aren't I?!!!

  • ||

    examples of lax regulatons and the result of running the FAA "like a business" (putting bottom line over safety).

    Typical idiot's definition of "run it like a business". A well-run business depends on a continuing stream of income; scaring (and killing) off your customers is not a good business model.

  • johnny john john||

    When I think of the aviation community, I think the mechanics, technicians, aircraft controllers, aircraft designers, pilots, engineers, ... not Congressional staffers....

  • on the inside||

    Ref responses
    W Walsh "I'm right aren't I?!!! - no you are horribly wrong.

    P Brooks. " Typical idiot's def". - my definiton and the FAA's def was run "like a business" not your leap to a "well-run" business

    JJJohn - we have a winner

    I anticipate more loathing responses laced with hate and insults although I hope for intelligent thought devoid of personal attacks.

  • e||

    Why can't we have a free-market approach to flight safety, where we scrap the bureaucratic FAA and customers can choose which air traffic controller they want? Customers would naturally go to the controllers which have the least number of crashes. After a few years of horrific crashes, the market would settle down into a few established controller firms that would have only a few crashes a year as they battle for control of the airspace.

  • Germaine||

    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/06/11/eveningnews/main4174559.shtml

    re: FAA and whistleblowers

  • johnny john john||

    We're already down to only a few crashes a year right now... And we wouldn't have to have that initial few years of horrific crashes.

    Battle for control of the airspace?? That sounds like a terrible idea; it will either force airlines to create complex, inefficient routes from point A to point B and create defacto airspace monopolies. Besides,

  • GG||

    http://www.oig.dot.gov/StreamFile?file=/data/pdfdocs/WEB_FILE_Testimony_FAA_Oversight_of_Outsourced_Maintenance.pdf

  • abercrombie milano||

    My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won't get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there's more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I'm not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It's just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight...the Bible's books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on...the Bible's books were written by people with very different mindsets...in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it's literally a labyrinth, that's no joke

  • nike shox||

    is good

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