Firing Captain Kirk
July 5, 2006 — -- Periodically, over the past several years, those of us who marshal around words and phrases for a living have taken a deep breath and decided to go ahead and dare to discuss in public the fact that the airline industry in the United States is -- every hour of every day since the fall of 2001 -- setting a new safety record no one thought possible: zero passenger deaths.
Since such a safety record is expressed in facts, it gives us a great opportunity -- some might regard it as a temptation -- to try to dazzle and impress you with statistics in telling the story, as well as the temptation to pick a pet reason why we've avoided fatal accidents for so long.
For their part, of course, the airlines refuse to talk at all about this amazing four-and-a-half-year record of perfect safety, believing that Americans are so weak-minded and timid that any reminder of mortality may drive you away from their airplanes.
Airline pilots and flight attendants, meanwhile, tend to be just plain superstitious about such things, holding the vague belief that the moment we mention a safe flight record, it will most probably end in tragedy. And, of course, to be truthful in the extreme, there is a high likelihood that, regardless of how good we've become, somewhere, somehow in the future -- and despite more than 50 million successful flights since 2001 -- there will be another accident.
If you're still reading and not calling Amtrak, good, because there's a lot more you should know about this incredible safety record, starting with the fact that it is -- absolutely no pun intended -- no accident.
Yes, it's certainly true -- as a recent article in USA Today pointed out -- that the presence of a marvelous "black box" device called an Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System in every airliner has virtually stopped the type of accident we refer to as "Controlled Flight into Terrain," the sort of wholly avoidable tragedy where pilots make human mistakes and fly their perfectly good airplane into a ridgeline or sometimes onto flat ground.
And it's also true that several other technological advances, coupled with "lessons learned" changes in procedures, have rid us of other human-caused accidents, while the type of mishap due primarily to structural or mechanical malfunction has become almost dinosaur-rare.
But, as legendary radio broadcaster Paul Harvey would say, let me tell you the rest of the story, and it's a doozy!
First, I should tell you about a highly successful little operation at Moffet Field in California, run by NASA and called the Aviation Safety Reporting System. Pilots and mechanics and anyone with safety information to share can and do send in detailed reports of near-misses and almost-disasters, as well as narratives of what went wrong -- or what might go wrong in the future because of a perceived problem -- and the ASRS team investigates the report, strips the reporter's name from it, and adds the details to a growing safety hazard database.
There are great advantages, especially to a crewmember, for filling out the ubiquitous ASRS reports, not the least of which is a limited immunity from FAA "enforcement" action when the report concerns an inadvertent human mistake. But it also gives aviation professionals a way to immediately alert everyone to a problem without fear of the problem being ignored.