Southwest Tragedy: Airline Travel Is Safe. Let's Keep It That Way
(Bloomberg View) -- You can learn a surprising amount about airline safety by listening to this 8-minute YouTube audio:
The voices are those of an air traffic controller in Philadelphia and Tammi Jo Shults, the pilot of Southwest Airlines flight 1380, who made an emergency landing there on Tuesday after one of the plane's engine's failed catastrophically.
"Could you have medical personnel on the runway?" she says at the 2:50 mark. "We have injured passengers."
"Is your airplane physically on fire?" asks the controller.
"No," she replies. "It's not on fire but part of it is missing."
When Shults is cleared to land, she says, in that laconic pilot voice Tom Wolfe immortalized in “The Right Stuff,” "Thanks guys for the help.” Then she expertly guides the plane onto the runway, using the one remaining engine. There is no moment when Shults sounds panicked, or even mildly nervous. She is in complete control.
It is tragic that one of the passengers — now identified as Jennifer Riordan, a Wells Fargo executive and mother of two from Albuquerque, New Mexico — died on that flight.
Yet here’s an astonishing statistic: Before Riordan, the last time someone died as a result of an accident on a U.S. carrier was nine years ago, when a commuter plane, Colgan Air flight 3407, crashed into a house while trying to land in Buffalo, New York, killing 50 people.
Airline travel kills fewer people than swing sets (20 deaths a year), or bathtubs (300 deaths a year) or staircases (1,600 deaths a year). Flying on a U.S. carrier especially may be the safest thing a human can do aside from sleeping. (Actually, sleeping is pretty dangerous: 450 people die each year from falling out of bed.)
But why? Part of the reason is that modern airplanes have equipment that guards against problems that once led to crashes. Remember wind shear? Catastrophes resulting from a sudden “downburst” used to be relatively common. But the last one took place over 20 years ago. Since then, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration put out a wind-shear avoidance course that all pilots take, while aircraft manufacturers have installed wind-shear detection systems.
Or how about “controlled flight in terrain,” as the act of slamming into the side of a mountain or building is called in the airline business? Crashes of this sort, which used to take place from time to time when pilots became confused or disoriented, are now vanishingly rare. Planes are now equipped with systems that set off alarms if a pilot is in danger of hitting something, including another plane in the sky.
Aircraft now come equipped with automated “fly-by-wire” systems, which can intervene to prevent pilots from making a mistake. As the writer William Langewiesche has noted in several articles and books, pilots resent the degree to which automation has taken over so much decision-making in the cockpit. But it has saved lives.
The second reason is that for all their corner-cutting and nickel-and-diming of customers, U.S. airlines generally do not scrimp on safety. Plane crashes generate huge lawsuits and cause people to avoid the airline whose plane has crashed, at least temporarily. Conversely, as the writer and airline expert R.D. Sussmann-Deberry puts it, “A well-maintained aircraft is an on-time aircraft.”
Finally, there are the pilots themselves. “I would argue that the most improved ‘equipment’ has been pilots,” said Joe Brancatelli, who writes the “Joe Sent Me” newsletter for frequent travelers. “They are more mature and better trained.”
In the vast majority of plane crashes, pilot error is usually found to have played a big role. In the 2006 Comair crash, the pilot mistakenly tried to take off using a runway that was too short for the aircraft. And in the 2009 Colgan Air crash, both the pilot and co-pilot made a series of inexplicable errors that caused them to lose control of the plane as it prepared to land.
After the 2009 crash, the FAA did something the National Transportation Safety Board had been urging for years: It tightened rules meant to prevent pilot fatigue. Among other things, it limited the amount of time a pilot could be flying a domestic flight to nine hours, with a mandated 10 hours of rest before flying. And it increased the number of hours of required flight time from 250 to 1,500 for a pilot to get a commercial pilot’s license.
There have been complaints ever since. Smaller communities say the requirements have resulted in a decrease in flights to their towns. Airlines say they are going to lead to a pilot shortage as veteran pilots retire.
But there is no doubt that the rules have had a lot to do with why U.S. carriers have seen so few fatalities. Recall Chesley Sullenberger — the famous “Sully” — who in 2009 had both the skill and the presence of mind to land his hobbled plane on the Hudson River, saving the lives of the 155 passengers on board.
Or think again about Shults, who expertly landed her damaged plane under difficult circumstances. When you require 1,500 hours of flight time before you can fly passengers in the U.S., that is probably the kind of pilot you’re going to get.
As it has in so many other areas of government, President Donald Trump’s administration wants to reduce or eliminate many of the FAA’s safety rules, including the 1,500-hour requirement. Airline safety groups and all the experts I spoke to on Wednesday vehemently object.
“Deregulating airline safety is a terrible idea,” said Steven Marks, a lawyer who specializes in plane crashes. “If you deregulate banking, it can cause financial problems. But with airlines, the consequences of deregulation can be death.”
What happened on Tuesday should strengthen their hand. If the 1,500-hour rule is retained as a result of the publicity surrounding Shults’s remarkable landing, then Jennifer Riordan will not have died in vain.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg View columnist. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is the co-author of "Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA."
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