Friday, April 11, 2008
Every time I leave for a trip, my son makes me promise to come back safely. I try to hedge because I know it's not within my control, but even three-quarters asleep, as he usually is when I leave, he is never mollified. "Say you'll be safe," he says to me, and I usually do.
Which is to say, I put my trust in the FAA and the airlines.
I know that the most dangerous part of my trip, statistically speaking, is the part that is spent on the ground. I reassure myself of that all the time, as do some of the pilots of the planes I take. But at least in the car, I have some control. I am in charge of maintenance. I drive slowly and carefully. An accident is not necessarily catastrophic. That doesn't mean a drunk driver won't swerve across a median, doesn't mean a kid on drugs won't run a red light, but I have at least the illusion of some protection and the ability to do something -- buy a car with more air bags, drive defensively -- to protect myself and my family.
All control ends when you board that plane. We are totally in the hands of the airlines and the regulators.
The question is, are we in good hands?
Given what we're learning thanks to Congressman James Oberstar and his committee, the answer seems to be: not good enough.
When conservatives started repeating their mantra of smaller government at every turn, I developed a quick one-line response: You want smaller government? Do you really think the skies are too safe?
The truth is, we depend on government to protect us in situations where we have no control, and nowhere is that clearer than when you board a plane. I know the argument that the market should provide such protection on its own, that any airline that did not pay adequate attention to safety would soon find itself out of business when its planes started crashing and customers flocked to its competitors.
Not soon enough for me, thank you very much. I don't want to see one person die because an airline manager trying to make ends meet, balancing profits against costs and inspections against delays, took a risk that could and should have been avoided by those who have other "customers" to serve.
Maybe the most damning single piece of evidence that has emerged to date in Congressman Oberstar's committee hearings is not how long it has taken the FAA to give airlines notice of safety and inspection issues, or how much time they have given them to check out aging aircraft that could pose safety problems, but the fact that FAA managers refer to the airlines as their "customers." The airlines aren't their customers; you and I are. WE pay their salaries. WE put our lives in their hands. We have every right to expect that they will put our safety first, not the economics of the airline business.
Nobody likes to be delayed. Believe me, I've been there, more times than I can count. But better safe than sorry. The airlines may be dismissing these latest inspections as mere technical compliance, but read the statements from the pilots, who put their lives on the line and take responsibility for ours, and the word safety comes up over and over.
Getting the wiring wrong on the backup hydraulic system of a 20-year-old plane isn't just a technical issue. Even I know that. I want to keep my promise to my son, and that means the FAA has to keep its promise to us.
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