Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch



February 1, 1986 -- Remember those lyrics from a long forgotten love song?

Well, in this context I refer not to love but to the scary incidence of fatal commercial airline accidents last year, and the mounting public preoccupation with safety.

This touchy subject did not intrude upon my thoughts because of any particular news, nor was I motivated by discussions of security, terrorism or sabotage, probable cause or aging equipment, or the controversial aftereffects of the air traffic controller’s strike.

No, I was switched into this track by deregulation, now in place for its eighth year and a way of doing airline business that seems to be here to stay—good, bad or indifferent. Anyway, here’s what caught my attention: I was fiddling with the radio dial in search of news when I caught an opinion segment on WCBS. This evening it was Kevin Philips for Spectrum—"the views expressed are not necessarily those of this station or the CBS Radio Network."

A recap of his comments follows:

"Every week or two, when I find myself taking an airplane somewhere, my mind often wanders to my insurance. Have I left all the papers in one place where my wife could find them? Did I make sure to buy the ticket using my credit card in order to get the extra one hundred thousand dollars’ worth of insurance coverage you get that way? What with all the plane crashes these days, I take it all seriously—and I have the occasional worry I never used to have."

Philips goes on to say he’s not the only one. "A few weeks back, the Dallas News did a survey of local-are residents and found that by a large majority, they too were concerned about flight safety." He reported the Dallas citizens wanted the airlines to pay more attention to inspection and maintenance, as well as stepped-up air traffic control. "Moreover they wanted these measures even if it meant that fares would increase."

Along the same lines, the commentator then turned to a new book, Blind Trust, written by former airline pilot John Nance. "His thesis [Nance’s] is that airline deregulation…has been a factor in the growing record of airline accidents. He argues that deregulation threw the airlines into a financial competition and squeeze that made everything cost-accountable, even safety."

Still citing Nance, the report went on: "FAA, for its part, only prescribes minimum safety standards. The airlines used to require a lot more." But it’s Nance’s contention that because of the profit squeeze caused by deregulation, the airlines have not been insisting on quite the same standards they used to.

Philips then says: "I wouldn’t be surprised. For the last five year or so, all the airline emphasis has been on gimmicks—on super-paves fares, on free flights plans, and on other devices to stave off the competition of a whole bunch of new, cut-rate carriers."

In concluding he feels that all of this has a good side: "For those of us who use the airlines a lot and have the necessary guidebooks or a good travel agent, you can get some traffic fares. That’s competition at work, of course, and that’s what airline deregulation was designed to achieve. The cut-rate safety record is less of a bargain, though. A lot less. So I couldn’t agree more with the Dallas News survey that it’s time for tougher federal airline safety regulation. And if that means higher fares, fewer bargains and fewer new cut-rate airlines, well, maybe that kind of retrenchments is now in order."

The points made by Philips (and Nance) certainly deserve serious thought. I might point out here that frequent flyer Philips, a newspaper columnist and author, is no raving liberal or madcap consumer advocate.

There’s no question that the concern with airline safety is widespread, that it’s not limited to an occasional commentary by someone like Philips. A recent newspaper article raised the issue that older jets are more vulnerable to metal fatigue and corrosion, and that the older the jet the greater the need for maintenance. The point: that they necessity for the air carriers to cut costs has forced many of them to reactivate older equipment. And that ain’t good.

Whatever the cause, the record is clear…and disturbing. More than 1,760 people died in airline crashes last year, more than in any year in history. Such a high toll is particularly shocking when you consider that before the first crash of 1985—the New Year’s Day plunge of an Eastern Airlines jet into an Andes mountaintop—U.S. major airlines had gone thirty consecutive months without a single fatality.

Federal authorities, as we reported last month in out story "What Went Wrong?," have tried to reassure us. Despite the body count of 1985, they say the scheduled-airline accident rate (i.e. the chance that you or I will be a victim) continues to drop. The fatality rate was worse than the 1985 rate in three of the last twelve years.

But when you return to that figure—1,760 lost loves—such reassurance just aren’t enough.

Which isn’t to say that FAA has been indifferent to air safety. Last year they hit American Airlines with a substantial fine for maintenance interactions. AA is hardly the only offender, but it is the most visible.

I believe it is up to the airlines and their trade associations to reassure the consumer by focusing more effort and attention on maintenance and inspection procedures. It’s important for the public to perceive an intensive, industrywide dedication for safety standards. Editor’s note: As this column went to press, FAA has begun a systematic inspection of all U.S. airlines.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1991-2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.