Travel editor Peter Greenberg takes an in-depth look at the safety of America's airlines

April 14th, 2008

How Safe Are America's Airlines?

By Peter Greenberg
TODAYShow.com

In the last few weeks, airlines have grounded hundreds of planes, thousands of flights have been canceled and countless passengers have been stranded, frustrated, angered or otherwise inconvenienced at airports across America. All in the name of safety.

For airlines, passengers and even the federal agency charged with enforcing safety and maintenance policies, it was the perfect storm.

So, is this an issue of unsafe, uninspected airlines, bad maintenance, poor regulatory oversight or a nasty combination of all three?

That's probably a rhetorical question, but first, let's look at some history. When the Federal Aviation Administration was created by an act of Congress in 1935, it was essentially given a schizophrenic mandate that is impossible to perform: make and then enforce safety policy; and promote the business of aviation. Talk about a conflict of interest.

As a result, the agency was — and still is — conflicted. Historically, almost every time the understaffed FAA was confronted with a choice of making a decision that would either have a negative economic impact on airlines or improve safety, economic impact won.

Some of you might remember the Valujet crash in Florida in 1996. You might also remember that the cause of that crash was the improper placement of oxygen canisters in the cargo hold of that DC-9. A fire started in the hold, and shortly after takeoff, the plane corkscrewed into the Everglades, with the loss of all aboard. But the real cause of that crash was the inaction of the FAA.

Eight years earlier, there was a similar incident onboard an American Airlines plane, when another fire broke out in the cargo hold. The plane made an unscheduled emergency landing in Nashville; passengers and crew were evacuated. But the plane was destroyed by the fire. When the National Transportation Safety Board investigated the incident, it not only determined the immediate cause of the fire but also discovered something else: There were no fire suppression or smoke detection systems in the cargo holds of ANY narrow-bodied planes — 727s, 737s or DC-9s. The NTSB made an urgent safety recommendation to the FAA to issue an airworthiness directive (known in the industry as an AD) requiring airlines to retrofit their fleets with the fire warning/suppression systems.

Almost immediately, the FAA was lobbied heavily by the airlines, with the carriers claiming economic hardship. The airlines argued that equipping their planes with smoke detectors and fire suppression systems would cost a minimum of $350 million. And you guessed it: The FAA declined to force the airlines to make those necessary safety changes.

Eight years later, the pilots of that ValuJet plane never had a chance. The system that would have alerted them to the fire — and suppressed it — wasn't on board.

Was ValuJet an isolated incident? Many would argue that the FAA's enforcement of safety regulations — or lack of it — is simply part of a culture of the relationship between the agency and the airlines where the FAA often looks at the airlines as “customers.”

Indeed, in many cases when the FAA finds a safety problem or discovers a maintenance issue, it issues those airworthiness directives (ADs). But more often than not, these are “modified” ADs — the FAA will tell airlines there’s a problem, that they have to fix it, but then gives the airlines a deadline of years to make the changes.

It is a continuing, troubling issue, most recently surfacing when Southwest Airlines grounded many of its 737s when it was revealed that the FAA let the airline fly planes beyond their inspection deadline dates. When the story hit the front pages, the FAA issued a fine of more than $10 million against Southwest. There are those who would argue — myself included — that the FAA was essentially shamed into action.

Almost immediately, American, Delta and United announced they were voluntarily grounding many of their planes to do maintenance. Why? Apparently, each airline suddenly realized that there were existing ADs for its fleet — and even with those extended deadlines — each airline was about to miss those deadlines and feared even bigger FAA fines than were issued against Southwest.

But things soon got worse for the FAA, the airlines, and yes, for passengers.

At the same time, and in just one week, three troubled airlines abruptly filed for bankruptcy and ceased to operate. It was a bankruptcy trifecta — some analysts called it Chapter 33. One by one, Aloha, ATA and Skybus were grounded forever. And a fourth airline — Frontier — on the verge of the same fate, just filed Chapter 11 (and for the moment is still operating).

Meanwhile, back in Washington, the FAA's own inspectors went public and testified at a Congressional hearing that they were intimidated and threatened when they attempted to make necessary inspections. The result: The FAA then announced a “crackdown” on maintenance inspections.

“Crackdown?” Aren't those inspections what the FAA is SUPPOSED to do? The real answer: The FAA is physically incapable of proper regulatory oversight because it is already understaffed. As a result, the question that needs to be asked is whether — on a regular and consistent level — FAA inspectors are actually checking the physical maintenance work done on commercial airplanes or merely looking at the paperwork claiming the maintenance has been done. After all, anyone can simply check off a box on a sheet of paper.

So where does that leave passengers? Failed airlines, meaning fewer seats on fewer flights. Grounded aircraft, meaning thousands of flight cancellations and gridlock at airport terminals.

In the short term, it's chaos, of course. One airline — American — is offering $500 vouchers, hotel stays and meals for stranded passengers. But in the long run, the economic and operational woes of airlines will continue, and the words “low fare” may be on the verge of extinction. Spirit Airlines is struggling. And Air Tran is confronted with a harsh bottom line — its fuel bills alone represent more than 50 percent of its total operating costs.

With the hopeful restructuring of the FAA notwithstanding, there's the problem of the law of supply and demand. The future of air travel this summer may be sadly inevitable: The weakness of the U.S. dollar means America is the bargain destination. Last year, more than 57 million foreign visitors flew to the U.S. That's an increase of 11 percent over 2006. And this year, that number is expected to soar to nearly 60 million visitors, who won't think twice about paying much higher airfares, which are still a relative bargain for them. Airplanes this summer will be almost totally full, and even if you can get a seat, you'll pay a much higher price for it.

That means a more crowded, more expensive summer for all of us.

For the immediate future, if you're flying on an airline still plagued by either a bad balance sheet or maintenance groundings, make sure you buy your tickets with a credit card. This way, if your flight is canceled — or your airline fails completely — you're protected, at least in terms of your financial investment.

Whatever you do, don't wait to get to the airport to learn the bad news. Track your flight from home by logging on to flightstats.com, and then let your fingers do the walking. In the event of a flight cancellation caused by anything other than weather, the last thing you should do is stand in a long line. Instead, you need to call your airline and get “protected.” Get them to endorse your ticket over to another carrier so you can get to your destination. A consolation travel voucher — which essentially gets you a discount on your next flight — won’t solve your current challenge of getting to your destination today. Also, whether your flight is canceled or not, you should always think alternate airports — Providence instead of Boston, Midway instead of O'Hare, Oakland instead of San Francisco, Islip instead of La Guardia or JFK — as well as alternate routings.

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