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Ultimately, the proof of McGee’s safety allegations should show up in airline accident records. While he never provides such data, I dug into the National Transportation Safety Board’s accident database and retrieved airline safety data going back to 1947, tracking fatal accidents in absolute numbers, per million miles flown, and per million aircraft departures. (Since fatal accidents were rather rare events even in the early post−World War II years, trends are more easily seen by using 10-year averages.) Both before and after deregulation, fatalities per mile and per flight have steadily declined. (See chart.) Aviation safety was improving prior to deregulation and has continued to improve since then.
Some advocates of reregulation argue that the fatal accident rate per million passenger miles disguises what’s happening with regional airlines, since the major airlines fly the vast majority of all miles. That’s why I included the rate based on aircraft departures, since regional carriers make a bit more than 50 percent of all departures. And during the most recent decade, when the growth of regional airlines reached its highest rate ever, safety continued improving.
Since McGee’s lament about the decimation of airline employment due to outsourcing is equally data-free, I obtained numbers from the airline trade group Airlines for America on total U.S. airline employment from 1971 to the present. From 1971 to 1978, airline employment grew slowly, from 284,000 to 313,000. And then it took off, reaching 406,000 by 1988 and an all-time peak of 547,000 in 2000, 74 percent higher than in the year of deregulation. Since then, however, the twin shocks of 9/11 and much higher fuel prices have led to airline cost cutting and outsourcing, resulting in 386,000 employees as of 2011. So McGee is right about recent job shrinkage, but today’s number is still 23 percent higher than when airlines were deregulated in 1978.
McGee was a guest recently on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show, along with “Ask the Pilot” columnist John Cox and Air Line Pilots Association President Lee Moak. Cox and Moak dismissed McGee’s safety scaremongering as groundless. As Cox put it, “Those of us that are involved in airline safety, we’re looking at this data for trends all the time, and the safety has gotten better.” Washington Post transportation reporter Ashley Halsey III added, “Lee’s pilots would be complaining, loudly and very publicly, if they felt that they were being given substandard equipment.”
Unleashing competition on an industry that had been in a regulatory straitjacket for four decades was bound to lead to “creative destruction.” Tools such as outsourcing, automation, and creative pricing are all part of the discovery process as airlines seek viable business models for a sector that was badly in need of fundamental change. More evolution is likely (and necessary) in coming years, but so far three decades of deregulation have served airline customers well.