The airline industry recently reached a major safety milestone—three and one half years without a fatal acciden. That good news paradoxically brought a rush of pessimism, primarily a quote by the Secretary of Transportation asserting that the high level of safety makes it difficult for the regulators to require additional rules to attack the remaining margin. That “bad news” fails to comprehend one new aspect of aviation safety and one historic aspect of the business of improving safety performance.
The old good news is that the Secretary’s focus on new restrictions on airline operations really fails to comprehend that the Federal Aviation Regulations are NOT written as a maximum standard, but are a minimum. Most airlines establish their operating parameters above the minimums set by the FAA. The frequent claims seen in the press that management is seeking ways in which to “cut corners” is code for the fact that the pilots, who work 40 hours a month, do not like having less time off. Most importantly, the safety culture has been part of aviation since the first commercial operation; safety first is the mantra of management, pilots, cabin attendants, mechanics and even the much maligned bean counters.
The new good news is mentioned in the attached article and it involves a cooperative effort by the FAA and the airlines to utilize data to address potential problems before they surface. Computers are collecting and collating information about the performance of powerplants, the status of structures, the tendencies of cockpit crews, the patterns of aviation maintenance technicians and other critical human/mechanical functions. While some of this data driven analysis results in the laborious rulemaking process (including the lamented cost/benefit analysis), many of the projected improvements found in these proactive efforts are being incorporated without any governmental mandate.
Those who argue that more regulations are needed do not understand the marginal utility function. Any airline executive, seeking to reduce expenses related to safety, cannot avoid the massive risk factor associated with any accident or incident. The economic consequences of such a fatal event pose catastrophic results to an airline’s finances. As mentioned earlier, the cost/benefit calculation test, associated with capturing the last few percentage points of improvement when the historic performance approaches the ultimate goal, is difficult to meet. The antipodal analysis, what diminution of safety standards may be acceptable, carries with it an unacceptable number.
The really good news of the new safety efforts is that the numbers are powerful and the airlines are receptive to adopting best practices without compulsion. That does not mean that the FAA regulations are irrelevant in the future; the airlines really do appreciate the setting of these standards.Share this article: