Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Safety First

What 24/7 attention is for Sarah Palin, what money is to Bernie Madoff, what hemoglobin is for blood transfusions, safety is for airlines: The essential ingredient.

On the heels of Monday's scary, football-sized hole in the body of a 15-year-old Boeing 737 Southwest Airlines plane, frequent fliers can be excused for asking: What's going on in the sky?

Southwest inspected all of its nearly 200 of its Boeing 737-300s overnight, clearing them for take-off. But this incident can't be reassuring after Southwest and American Airlines were instructed in April 2008 to re-inspect hundreds of their aircraft for potential safety violations and Southwest was fined $7.5 million by the Federal Aviation Administration. In fairness, many industry observers thought that last year's crackdown was at least in part motivated by the FAA's desire to get Congress off its back when the bill to reauthorize and fund the FAA was pending - in other words, the agency wanted to look tough - but it's still a tad unsettling.

Just a few years ago, the world's commercial airlines went an entire year without a single fatality, a remarkable achievement. Compared to other modes of travel, flying is very safe.

Still, this has been a troubling year, with a FedEx cargo plane crashing at Tokyo Narita airport, killing two people; a commuter plane crashing and killing more people in Buffalo, N.Y.; and most mysterious of all, an Air France jetliner going down over the Atlantic Ocean on its way to Europe from Brazil. Authorities recently said they are scaling back the frustrating search for the underwater site of the Air France aircraft's data-rich black boxes, so we may never know what happened. That crash killed all 228 people on-board.

Then, too, a Yemeni airliner crashed last month over the Indian Ocean, killing 153.

On July 15, things got worse: A Russian-made Caspian Air passenger plane bound for Armenia crashed in Iran. The toll this time: 168 people gone, according to Iranian state media.

The causes of the crashes vary widely, including at various times, human error, faulty and antiquated eqipment and bad weather.

According to a report moved July 10 by Reuters, there have been 12 crashes this year involving fatalities, compared with 16 for all of last year. Still, this is on track to be an average year, according to the Wall Street Journal, which cited on June 30 statistics on crashes compiled by a London aviation consulting company called Ascend. Ascend uses as its leading metric the number of hull losses - "planes that end up totalled after an accident,'' according to the Journal.

This may be a useful technical measure, but it overlooks the sheer terror of falling from the sky, and ignores the measure that most people use to judge the severity of an accident: namely, the number of human beings who perish in an accident.

Plane crashes hold a special place in the topography of fear. Auto accidents kill many more people - tens of thousands every year in the United States alone. My wife and I just last year fortunately walked away from an auto accident that nearly totalled our car, and I can attest that auto accidents can be very frightening.

And yet, despite the fact that car crashes result in far more injuries and fatalities, plane crashes command our attention even more. Statistics on hull-losses that are meant to be reassuring are cold comfort.

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