Plane Truth


Collision Course: The Truth About Airline Safety, by Ralph Nader and Wesley J. Smith, New York: McGraw-Hill, 352 pages, $21.95

Airline crashes are horrifying events. As a frequent flyer, I am personally concerned about air safety, to the point of reading the detailed crash post-mortem reports by the National Transportation Safety Board and occasionally avoiding an airline on safety grounds. In addition, as a longtime transportation researcher, I have followed with keen interest the airline industry's evolution from cartel to open competition.

So I was especially curious to see what Ralph Nader's new book would have to say on airline safety. After all, a Nader group, the Aviation Consumer Action Project, had been one of the key members of the coalition promoting Ted Kennedy's airline deregulation efforts in the mid-1970s. And a Nader's Raiders group several years before had ripped apart the cartelization imposed on railroads and trucking by the Interstate Commerce Commission.

But then again, this is the 1990s, not the '70s. Thus, the thesis of this new book by Nader and fellow attorney Wesley J. Smith is that airline deregulation has made airlines less safe. Their argument runs as follows: Cutthroat competition has forced airlines to keep old planes in service, to use inexperienced pilots, and to cut corners on maintenance. The nominal safety regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration, is in thrall to the airlines (and is incompetent anyway). Hence, consumers are not being protected from the corporate airline buccaneers.

Unfortunately for their thesis, Nader and Smith immediately run up against some inconvenient facts. Every objective assessment of the statistics on airline accidents before and after deregulation shows significant reductions in accident and death rates in the years since deregulation became the law of the land. Nader and Smith even cite the leading academic work on the subject, Why Airplanes Crash, by Clinton Oster, John Strong, and Kurt Zorn (Oxford University Press, 1992), only to dismiss it as merely "statistical history."

Nader and Smith prefer to rely on anecdotes of horrible crashes, whistleblower accounts, and a few out-of-context statistics—e.g., counting raw numbers rather than rates of crashes, or reporting a one-year statistical upward blip while ignoring the underlying downward trend. Airline crashes are statistically rare events, and the only way to make sense of the data is to look at rates and trends.

In case the reader is still unconvinced, the authors' final argument is that even though the accident figures may still look good, the day of reckoning is not far off, since the "margin of safety" keeps being whittled away. They quote with approval a warning by Sen. William Roth (R-Maine) about eroding safety margins—but fail to comment on the fact that Roth made this warning seven years ago, and the projected epidemic of crashes has yet to appear.

Nader and Smith are on somewhat less shaky ground when they take on the FAA's performance. They rightly criticize the agency's "dual mandate" to promote and to regulate aviation, a charge given to no other federal safety regulator. But their zeal to make their case, combined with economic illiteracy, too often leads them off course.

In now-classic Nader fashion, the authors attack cost-benefit analysis as putting profits before human lives. "It is wrong to deny the flying public safer transport because of some arbitrary equation," applied to a number of recent controversies, is typical of the book's rhetoric. The general problem with Nader and Smith's approach is captured in two sentences on page 71: "But this is not a book about economics. It is concerned with safety."

One cost-benefit study found that requiring the use of child safety seats on airlines would actually increase infant deaths. Using reasonable assumptions about how prices affect people's choice of travel mode, FAA analysts concluded that a significant number of families who now carry an infant on an adult's lap, if required to buy an extra ticket for a seat for the child, would opt to drive instead. As a result, given the relative accident and death rates for car trips compared to airplane flights, more deaths would occur. Nader and Smith simply dismiss such analyses as "arbitrary equations" and demand that "obvious" safety improvements be required.

In another place, the book slams American and United for not removing a seat from beside certain exit doors on 757s. Federal air regulations require only a window exit in those locations, and seats are permitted next to window exits. American and United use a larger, door-type exit instead. The door exit is actually a net gain for safety, but you'd never know it from reading Nader and Smith's diatribe about it.

And yet…the cases where the FAA has dragged its feet on adopting NTSB recommendations are legion. Nader and Smith cite more than a handful of cases where current practices do appear to compromise safety—such as exemptions from minimum safety training standards and rules concerning pilot duty time (under which pilots may get less than six hours of sleep). But amid the conflicting interests of unions and airlines, how is one to sort out which practices really do make sense?

One potentially reliable voice for rational safety practices could be the insurance industry. In certain fields (chemical process plants, fire safety), insurance service organizations set standards and work with clients to reduce risks and hence insurance company exposure. In aviation, most of that role appears to have been delegated, by default, to the FAA. But this agency's history and the conflicts imposed by its dual mandate suggest that it may be time for greater involvement by the insurance industry in aviation risk reduction and loss prevention. Nader and Smith mention the insurance industry (along with tort law) as a positive factor but fail to explore how its role could be expanded.

When they come to the FAA's other principal role—operating the air-traffic control system—the authors finally reach solid ground. They document the agency's chronic inability to field state-of-the-art computer, communications, and radar technology; its maldistribution of controllers (thanks to uniform civil-service pay scales nationwide despite large variations in both living costs and stress levels); its financial insecurity, with a budget held hostage to the whims of the federal appropriations process; and its micromanagement by both Congress and the administration.

Unlike many other critics, Nader and Smith recognize the problem as institutional and call for spinning off air-traffic control as a user-funded corporation. (The same recommendation was made last year by the Naderite Aviation Consumer Action Project.) They also call for peak-hour pricing at airports, so that slow-moving private planes will have an incentive not to mix with big jets, a practice that congests busy airports and can create safety hazards.

On the question of air-traffic control, at least, a consensus seems to be emerging. The National Commission to Ensure a Strong Competitive Airline Industry last August recommended that air-traffic control be corporatized, and the Air Transport Association (the airline trade group) has endorsed this proposal. Fortunately, unlike Nader and Smith, the commission rejected calls to reregulate the airline industry.

When all is said and done, this is a disappointing book. Airline travel in the United States is safer than ever before, and deregulation has made it affordable to a vastly greater market. If Ralph Nader had teamed up with an economist, rather than another lawyer, perhaps he would have written a less strident, more nuanced book on airline safety. That book would have addressed in more detail the contradiction embedded in airline deregulation: namely, that airlines were freed up but airports and air-traffic control were not, resulting in a growing mismatch between the needs of the users and the capabilities of the infrastructure. That book could also have pondered more carefully the question of how much it makes sense to spend on air safety, given limited resources. That book, unfortunately, remains to be written.

Robert W. Poole Jr. racks up about 75,000 frequent-flyer miles per year as a peripatetic transportation researcher and president of the Reason Foundation.