Is Airline Safety Being Threatened?

Last week, a nationally reported story proclaimed "FAA Oversight Lagging," an allegation that set off renewed jitters among airline consumers. After all, even though it's been an amazing three-and-a-half years since the last major airline accident in the United States, airline flying involves such a huge surrender of personal control that any hint of safety shortcomings gets our immediate attention.

The story cited a report by the Transportation Department's Inspector General and focused on the concern that massive changes in airline schedules are overwhelming the Federal Aviation Administration. While the FAA vociferously disagreed, the simplistic assumption underlying the story is the same one Congress erroneously relied on back in 1978 when it deregulated the airlines: The myth that the FAA has the ability to single-handedly ensure, if not create, airline safety.

In a phrase, they don't. Let me explain.

First, never in the history of commercial aviation has it been safer to fly on U.S. carriers and, for that matter, most major airlines in the world.

But -- and this is a huge warning -- that incredible safety record depends on continuous effort by virtually everyone associated with the commercial airline business to maintain something called the margin of safety.

And who builds and maintains that margin of safety? The airlines themselves, not the FAA.

Achieving a Safety Buffer

There is no clear dividing line between safe or unsafe. The truth is, we've achieved almost perfect airline safety by being very aware of what can go wrong and then building a very robust safety buffer to absorb the mistakes and malfunctions that can't be prevented. That buffer operates just like the wide, grassy center area that divides most interstate highways outside big cities. It keeps out-of-control vehicles traveling in one direction from wreaking potential disaster on those moving in the other direction.

In the case of airlines, the backup mechanical and electronic systems, as well as the procedures engineered into every aspect of airline flying, enable, for instance, a two-engine airliner to fly safely on one engine, or enable the crew to lose two hydraulic systems and still have a safe way to land.

Similarly (as I've pointed out in previous columns here), our recent Renaissance in getting pilots to listen to each other has given us an equally robust ability to have one human catch the rare but inevitable error of another in time to prevent accidents and near-misses. ("Excuse me Captain, I know you don't want to hear this, but you've forgotten to put the landing gear down and the runway's getting close.")

Ever been in a precautionary emergency landing? Few have because it's so rare, but for those who've experienced it, you were momentarily flying in that Safety Buffer, that center grassy divider of aviation. Something went wrong, but it ended uneventfully because we admitted it could go wrong and the airline paid the extra attention and money necessary to make sure that failure could be handled safely.

Who Maintains the Safety?

Now, a big question for all of us: How wide would you like that buffer to remain in aviation? How close do you want to get to the oncoming traffic? I ask that because, if airlines cut back too much on maintenance and training and spare parts or if they put too much performance pressure on pilots and dispatchers and mechanics and flight attendants and ignore their depressed morale (which makes a huge difference in safety), we will be cutting down that Safety Buffer. Do that too much and someday there won't be enough of it left to absorb a major problem. That's when we have accidents.

But the FAA is on guard, right?

Let's get this one right out on the table. The FAA is staffed by some of the most dedicated, capable and hardworking men and women in the country, and they by and large try their hearts out to maintain oversight of the airlines. But here's what you may not know: The FAA is not now -- nor was it ever designed to be -- a police force. There are simply nowhere near enough FAA inspectors and personnel to make sure the airlines comply with all the rules all the time.

Airline safety comes first, last and always from the airlines themselves.

It was, in fact, legacy carriers like United, American, Delta, Northwest and my own defunct Braniff Airways that built air safety, and they did so with the FAA helping as a mentor, not a policeman on the beat. But when the industry becomes so frantic with cost-cutting that it starts taking chucks out of the Safety Buffer (as it did in the '80s with catastrophic results), the FAA is very limited in what it can do.

Airline flying is so secure because we have both the airline industry's continued determination to stay safe coupled with the FAA's role as a good mentor. But for that to continue, we can't as a people turn a blind eye to the potential effects of the current financial problems on the industry. And, if FAA oversight is lagging in any area (such as inspecting offshore maintenance facilities) as the inspector general has suggested, it's up to Congress to rapidly give it enough additional resources to upgrade that oversight.

John J. Nance, ABC News' aviation analyst, is a veteran 13,000-flight-hour airline captain, a former U.S. Air Force pilot and a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves. He is also a New York Times best-selling author of 17 books, a licensed attorney, a professional speaker, and a founding board member of the National Patient Safety Foundation. A native Texan, he now lives in Tacoma, Wash.