For six years, most Americans have viewed airline safety through the prism of security and the threat of terrorism. But terrorists don't pose the only threat to this country's exemplary aviation safety record.
I spent most of 2006 investigating airline safety on behalf of Consumer Reports magazine. After nine months, I came to believe the greatest long-term threat to U.S. airline passengers stems not from terrorism, but the outsourcing of critical maintenance work to third-party vendors both here and abroad. The result of that work—"An Accident Waiting to Happen?"—was published in the March 2007 issue of Consumer Reports (available to subscribers at www.consumerreports.org/cro/travel/index.htm).
We found that even though domestic airlines have dramatically increased their use of outsourced maintenance facilities, there are critical regulatory differences between repair shops run by airlines and those by outside vendors, even within the U.S. Experts also told us there's a correlation between outsourced maintenance and airline-induced flight delays. Further, we quoted front-line Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) maintenance inspectors concerned about their inability to conduct timely inspections, and airline mechanics concerned about shoddy work done overseas. I also spoke to the parents of a young woman killed on an Air Midwest/US Airways Express flight in 2003, in a crash that was attributed to improper servicing by an outside maintenance vendor.
Questions about the FAA's oversight have been growing for years. Back in 1996, in the wake of the fatal ValuJet 592 and TWA 800 crashes, Donald F. Kettl, a non-resident senior fellow for Governmental Studies at the Brookings Institution, wrote about the "subtle pressures" faced by the FAA: "First, in an era where government's critics believe the only good regulation is a dead regulation, the FAA has been hard pressed to minimize its intrusiveness into the airline industry. Second, faced with fast growing start-up airlines and old airlines under tough cost pressures, the FAA has strained to cope with vast changes in the way the industry operates."
Eleven years later, those words are nothing less than prophetic. Shortly after the Consumer Reports article was published, the House Subcommittee on Aviation held hearings on outsourced maintenance facilities and then the Senate did the same. In testimony before the Senate in June(www.oig.dot.gov/item.jsp?id=2068), Calvin Scovel, the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation, noted the percentage of outsourced maintenance dollars for domestic airlines increased from 37% to 64% between 1996 and 2006, and the number of foreign facilities servicing U.S. carriers increased from 344 to 698 over the last 13 years. Of greater concern, Scovel also stated, "[We] have identified challenges in FAA's ability to effectively monitor the increase in outsourcing."
Other problems remain
While maintenance outsourcing remains a vital concern, there are other threats to airline safety. For some time now, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has published its list of "Most Wanted" safety improvements for aviation (www.ntsb.gov/recs/mostwanted/aviation_issues.htm). Currently the list contains six items, including such hot-button issues as human fatigue factors; airport runway incursions and ground collisions; and the continuing need to improve crew resource management techniques in the cockpit. Of these issues, the FAA's response is ranked as "unacceptable" on five and "progressing slowly" on the sixth.
Then there's the nation's aging air traffic control network. Last week the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) cited a major communications breakdown at a regional control center in Memphis as "yet another cause for alarm regarding aviation infrastructure." According to Susan Gurley, ACTE's executive director, the design, maintenance and installation of updated equipment in control centers are as important as the aircraft themselves.
This list of concerns indicates that in some ways, aviation safety is like global warming. Since the nation's commercial aviation safety record is so high, it's hard to conceive of our aeronautical infrastructure eroding. But without proper vigilance, it will.
Still the safest way to travel
Despite statistical evidence that should provide comfort, many Americans remain afraid to fly, and that's perfectly understandable, particularly since 9/11. There are dozens of books, websites, and mail-order programs that address fear-of-flying issues, and I wrote about some of these in my column on aerophobia, "Overcoming the Fear of Flying," in 2004 (www.usatoday.com/travel/columnist/mcgee/2004-08-10-mcgee_x.htm). One such site, FearlessFlight.com, provides statistics on airline safety (www.fearlessflight.com/airplane-disasters-plane-crash-statistics) and quotes Time magazine in noting "more than 500 times as many people die on U.S. roads as in airline accidents."
Several years ago aviation statistician Arnold Barnett concluded the actual risk of one person being involved in a fatal airline accident to be once every 19,000 years, provided he flew on an airline flight once each day for 19,000 years. That commercial aviation is safer than driving is beyond dispute. Even so, such numbers can be tough to understand.
I spent months analyzing airline safety statistics and speaking to experts about them, and I can tell you the whole topic is a bit of a quagmire. For one thing, a single accident can radically skew the overall record for a given airline or even for an entire year. For another, the data are not always collected in an apples-to-apples fashion. Even so, a closer look at these types of statistics reveals key distinctions.
While the odds of being killed on a single flight operated by a U.S. large scheduled airline are 52.6 million to 1, those odds drop significantly for smaller aircraft. It's down to 581,395 to 1 for scheduled commuter airlines and 163,934 to 1 for air taxi on demand service. Further, the site PlaneCrashInfo.com quotes sources that claim the odds of surviving a flight are about 11 times better on airlines that have what it terms the best safety records, compared to airlines with the worst safety records.
The bottom line is that not all airlines, airports, and airplanes are equally safe. On the other hand, it's a fallacy to passively assume that you as a passenger can do nothing to enhance your already high chances of flying safely. In fact, there are practical steps you can take to increase the odds.
Thinking the unthinkable— and surviving
One of the biggest myths about airline crashes is that few survive. In fact, passengers safely evacuate airplanes every year in this country. An NTSB report released in 2000 examined 46 evacuations over 21 months between 1997 and 1999, with one occurring every 11 days on average, affecting a total of 2,651 passengers. In the same report, the NTSB quoted a survey that found, "Passengers believe 75% of transport airline accidents are fatal, i.e., without hope for survival," yet noted that the reverse is true—survival is, in fact, highly likely. But it's no wonder most fliers are pessimistic. The report also found: "Accident reports indicate that passengers are generally uninformed about airplane accidents, emergency evacuations, and accident-survival issues."
Back when I worked in airline flight operations, I attended a class with other employees on how to safely evacuate a 747, necessary training for those of us who rode in the cockpit or occupied jumpseats. Almost twenty years later, what I remember most from that experience was a colleague's comment that airplane crashes would be much more survivable if only airline employees were allowed to fly. He had a point: I learned more in those few hours than I had in years of flying as a consumer. So what chance does the average passenger have in a life-and-death emergency? A very high chance, particularly if you've prepared in advance.
One FAA safety expert recently conducted a media blitz in which he stressed five key strategies for surviving a plane crash. Here's a summary of that advice:
• When you board the plane, count the rows between your seat and the exit row. This could save your life if smoke fills the cabin.
• Take the time to read the safety card and pay attention during the briefing. Sure, you may be a frequent flier and think you've heard it all before, but each airplane—not just each model but in some cases each specific aircraft—can be somewhat different.
• In the event of an emergency landing, properly brace for it by crossing your hands on the seat in front of you, putting your head against your hands, and remaining in that position until the airplane has stopped.
• "Stop, go, and stay low." Once the plane comes to a rest, this means you should move quickly toward an exit, while remaining low to avoid fumes.
• Get away from the crash site as soon as possible.
Here is some additional advice I would add:
• Know your surroundings. Learn where your emergency exits are located, not just nearby but in all directions.
• Dress correctly. Skimpy attire—even in hot climates—can be dangerous in the event of a fire. Long-sleeved shirts and heavier pants will provide more protection, and are much better than shorts, T-shirts, or skirts.
• Board with the proper footwear. Here's where safety and security are sometimes at odds: Sandals and flip-flops may help you breeze through the screening process, but they're the worst footwear for an evacuation. Heavier shoes provide protection against glass, metal, and debris, as well as protection against the elements.
• Stay alert. Even on the longest flights, consider whether you should consume alcohol or take sleeping aids.
As for choosing the safest seat, there's little question proximity to an exit is key. But what constitutes the safest section of the airplane is a long-standing topic of debate among aviation professionals. For example, Flight Safety Foundation's Aviation Safety Network presents statistics on the safest locations to survive a fatal jet accident (aviation-safety.net/airlinesafety/paxsafety/safestloc.php). The examination of 30 survivable crashes concludes, "Looking at these accidents there is no significant difference regarding survival for passengers seated in the front or the rear of the plane [during four phases of flight], except for accidents during approach and landing." In these instances, the rear was safer in 13 cases, compared to the front in five cases and the center in four cases. So clearly those who prefer the rear have some evidence to support it.
Then there's choosing the safest plane. For many passengers, selecting a flight based on the right equipment is often a function of the airline's fleet age, particularly for a specific aircraft type. Aviation experts always stress the age of an aircraft is not nearly as important as its maintenance record, because airplanes are just like people—some older models are in much better shape than younger ones. Fair enough. However, there's little question the need for maintenance increases with age, so the year a given plane was built remains relevant. There are several sites that provide up-to-date and detailed information on the average age of an airline's fleet, usually broken down by aircraft type. Some of these sites publish such data for the public, including AirFleets.net and AirSafe.com).
Once again it bears repeating: Commercial aviation in the United States is the safest form of transportation ever devised. But focusing exclusively on terrorism and overlooking dangerous trends on maintenance outsourcing and other safety issues is not the way for us to continually improve on that outstanding record.
Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an e-mail at USATODAY.com at travel@usatoday. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.