Airline safety: Cutting corners, costing lives

Issue 

REVIEWED BY PHIL SHANNON

The Tombstone Imperative: The Truth About Air Safety
By Andrew Weir
Simon & Schuster, 2000
372 pp, $14.95 (pb)

"Nothing is more important to us than safety", "Safety is our number one priority": all the variations on this theme were heard from the top bananas of Ansett Airlines after their entire 767 fleet was grounded over Easter by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority because of continuing safety concerns.

It is the tune sung by airlines the world over to persuade us that no effort or expense is spared on safety. It is also one of the more barefaced corporate lies, as British writer and broadcaster Andrew Weir shows in his gripping book on how safety is compromised by the aviation industry's pursuit of profitability through cost-cutting.

Safety improvements are only made when their cost is less than the litigation costs of human lives lost. Only after sufficient passengers and flight crew have been killed in fiery crashes do the government regulators enforce new safety measures. As one US regulatory official put it, "We regulate by counting tombstones".

Weir dispatches the airlines' statistical propaganda on the safety of air travel. The airlines claim that the number of air fatalities for distance travelled is the lowest of all transport modes, which is true, but as 70% of accidents happen at take-off and landing rather than the long, cruise portion of a flight, the number of journeys rather than distance travelled is the most important factor, for travellers, in assessing the likelihood and consequences of a crash.

Comparing fatalities per number of journeys, air travel is ten times more dangerous than car travel, and twenty times more dangerous than train travel.

All aircraft crashes and human deaths, says Weir, are preventable but safety has never been a prime consideration of the airlines.

The safety improvements that came with the replacement of piston engines by jet engines, radar, more sophisticated air traffic control and navigation were a by-product of technological change which was made for economic, not safety, reasons.

Safety measures increase costs without increasing revenue and as profits are the raison d'etre of the airline companies, says Weir, they will not spend a cent on safety unless forced to by the "tombstone imperative".

Safety is a victim of "cost-cutting and profit maximisation". Pilot training, for example, is expensive, particularly simulator training, and is skimped on because of increasing automation whereby pilots increasingly fly the plane's computer rather than the plane.

Yet automation is renowned for masking developing flight problems, or getting things totally wrong, and when the software turns up its toes, the pressure on pilots to salvage a critical situation is much greater, demanding advanced diagnostic and hands-on flying skills. Digital gremlins make pilot training more, not less, important.

The industry prefers to blame crashes on "pilot error" to distract attention from other causes. Pilot "error", however, is usually the result of fatigue and rostering of unqualified or inexperienced flight crew, both of which are management responsibilities.

Pilots are under pressure to be more "efficient", with some airlines having penalties for pilots who divert to other airports, refuse to take off or otherwise cite safety concerns for any deviation from the flight schedule.

Maintenance is a favourite with the cost-cutters. In-house maintenance is subject to staff cuts or is contracted out to cheaper tender.

The safety results are predictable. In the worst ever crash in the US (an American Airlines DC-10 in Chicago in 1979), 271 people died when an engine pylon separated from a wing. In the drive for "efficiency", the maintenance department had implemented a shortcut for removing the engine pylon and wing for servicing by parking a forklift under the wing. The resulting metal fatigue caused the crash.

Over Oxfordshire in England in 1999, a windscreen of a British Airways plane blew out and the pilot was sucked out of the cockpit, because the wrong windscreen bolts had been fitted during maintenance and there was no (expensive) quality control to spot the mistake. For want of the correct O-ring, oil drains away and engines die in flight.

Maintenance-related accidents have increased as a proportion of total accidents over the last decade. Maintenance faults are systemic in a culture of staff cuts and overwork, with engineers under pressure to cut corners. Parts are used to just within or past their useable lives.

In 1998, sixty four engineers and mechanics petitioned Alaska Airlines about the pressures they were under to do sub-standard work. They were not, however, speaking the same language as management, unfortunately for the 88 killed in an Alaska Airlines plane which crashed in California the next year because of a faulty tailplane screw.

The poor crashworthiness of airplanes is also a cause of needless deaths once crashes happen. Improving a plane's structural integrity and passenger safety "invokes expense" and is therefore not done.

After direct impact deaths, the largest killer from crashes is toxic smoke and fire.

There have been no moves, however, to introduce smoke protection (such as smoke hoods for passengers to allow them to evacuate before being overcome by smoke) or water sprinklers. Smoke hoods cost around $50 but as this is greater than zero dollars, it is still "evidently too much". Water costs nothing but regrettably weighs more than nothing and therefore adds to fuel costs.

Airlines reject such measures, writes Weir, because "new safety technology that can make more profits has not yet been invented".

Only a cynic, says Weir with tongue firmly planted in cheek, would suggest that synthetic (and hence more toxic) materials are used in cabins because they are cheaper than natural materials. Neither have airlines wanted the cost of retrofitting their planes with rear-facing seats which are far safer for the human body in coping with the deceleration forces of a crash.

Widening access widths between seats next to emergency exits would reduce the number of seats that can be filled with paying customers, so it is not done. US military and corporate jets have rear-facing seats, smoke-hoods and other protections because their personnel are seen as more valuable than the "self-loading cargo" on passenger planes.

Industry resistance to safety measures which cut into profits is also illustrated in the belated introduction of regulations on minimum distances between aircraft. A big jet creates an air vortex in its trail which can play havoc with smaller planes in its wake.

Eliminating this safety risk, however, was resisted by the industry because it would mean reduced throughput of planes at airports, and thus less revenue for all concerned. Only after 51 air vortex-related accidents, and 27 deaths, in the US alone from 1983 to 1993 was the corpse threshold reached and rules on minimum distances introduced.

The US regulatory body, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), is the pacesetter (or, rather, the inertia-setter), for regulators in other countries. The FAA, however, "shares the same broad philosophy as the industry" and is unwilling to err on the side of safety because of the "cost to society" (which it must consider, according to the FAA's charter, but which really means the cost to industry profits).

The dramatic Concorde crash with 113 dead in July 2000 in France was a failure of the regulators, who did not act on eight earlier and similar incidents when Concorde tyre explosions ripped holes in the planes' wings. Nobody died so nothing was done.

Deregulation further assists the industry. Weir laments the situation in Australia which had "the strongest aviation safety culture in the world" until "self-regulation" was introduced, and a strong pilots' union smashed (by a Labor government, let it be known).

The Ansett fleet grounding, the Qantas runway accident in Bangkok, the aborted landings and near misses at Sydney airport are some early chickens coming home to roost, presaging a major disaster.

The 1,500 people a year who die horrible deaths from crashes that should not happen is the "inevitable" result, says Weir, of profit maximisation causing the sacrifice of safety.

Pack this well-researched, logically argued and passionately felt book for some white-knuckled, in-flight reading on your next plane trip, or better yet, take the train.

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