As Airlines Struggle to Cut Fares and Costs, America's Friendly Skies May Be Clouded with Danger

updated 03/31/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/31/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Last year, with 1,533 fatalities, was the bloodiest in U.S. civil aviation history. The catalog of disaster included the crash in Newfoundland of an Arrow Air charter last Dec. 12, killing 256 people, most of them members of a U.S. peacekeeping force returning from the Middle East; the destruction of a Delta Air Lines Lockheed L-1011 Tristar that crashed outside Dallas last Aug. 2, killing 135; and the crash minutes after takeoff of a Midwest Express DC-9 in Milwaukee last Sept. 6, which resulted in the death of 31 passengers and crew members. Airline safety expert John J. Nance, 39, believes these catastrophes were not mere coincidence, but a reflection of the competitive cost-cutting that has been forced on the airline industry since its deregulation in 1978. In his new book, Blind Trust (William Morrow & Company, $17.95), Nance, an attorney and a former pilot for Braniff, contends that human error—"by stressed-out pilots, overworked air traffic controllers, less-than-vigilant government investigators and cost-conscious maintenance crews"—causes 85 percent of all airline disasters and that pressure to reduce fares will almost certainly make such failings commonplace. He believes the Federal Aviation Administration's recent proposal to fine Eastern Airlines $9.5 million for safety-procedure violations is irrefutable evidence of the consequences of the pressure. "Last year wasn't a fluke," insists Nance. "And unless airlines place more emphasis on safety, we're going to keep paying for cut-rate tickets with lives." Nance spoke with correspondent Michael J. Weiss about the dangers he believes the airlines are facing.

How do you respond to industry officials who say we have the safest air system in the world?

They're right. The skies aren't unsafe—yet. But Congress promised the public in 1978 that deregulation would not result in a lower level of safety, and in order to give people $69 and $99 tickets, airlines are lowering their commitment to safety. This is an area that simply cannot be left to free-market forces. One deregulation proponent claimed that if a carrier became too unsafe, the public wouldn't fly it. But how do we know when it reaches that point? When people get killed?

Why do you believe human factors are the cause of most accidents?

Manufacturers build tremendously reliable airplanes. If they're flown and maintained according to the manufacturers' manuals, they're as close to perfect as you can get. The only weak link is the human element. Consider the pilot for example. The cockpit environment is very demanding, whether it's a small or large plane. In a jetliner pilots face high-altitude stress: constant noise, dehydration, fatigue. I used to fly a DC-8 from Los Angeles to Santiago, Chile. After an 11-hour flight I'd have to struggle to get sharp enough to handle the landing. You feel as if you're being flown by the airplane, not the other way around.

Was human error the cause of the Arrow Air DC-8 crash last December?

I suspect it was. I flew DC-8 for Braniff, and I know how delicately you have to manipulate those controls during a full-weight takeoff. If you have an old airplane with worn engines and airframes with a few dents to create a bit more drag than usual, you don't have much margin for error. There was freezing rain and snow the day of the accident, and while some planes were de-iced, this one wasn't. Maybe that was the fatal mistake. It takes time and money to get de-iced. If you're operating at the legal minimums, you may not want to spend what's required. Incidentally, Arrow's entire DC-8 fleet has since been grounded for using replacement parts not certified by the FAA.

Wind shear is believed to have caused the Delta jumbo jet crash in Dallas last August. How can you attribute that to human error?

Easily. No pilot can justify flying into a thunderstorm. What you do is avoid the hell out of it. The Delta pilots saw the thunderstorm outside Dallas, but they flew into it. Delta is a superlative airline, but these pilots were overconfident of their aircraft's ability to fly through anything, and they forgot some of the basics.

There's some question about whether the Delta pilots and the Dallas air traffic controllers were aware of the seriousness of the thunderstorm. Could technology have averted the accident?

You could have given those air traffic controllers the most sophisticated instrumentation possible—Doppler radar is an excellent way to get at the problem of wind shear—and I still doubt if they would have had the gumption to order Delta to break off its approach. They would have had to reorganize the whole traffic flow into the airport, and someone might have complained about how much money the diversion cost his company. Besides, the controller might not have been backed up by his boss at the FAA.

How often do government investigators cite human error when analyzing airline crashes?

Ten years ago human factors were a verboten subject at the National Transportation Safety Board. Investigators were not supposed to delve into the pilot's mind. They were incredibly good when it came to piecing together what happened to the metal in every disaster. But an accident could have been caused by controller error, maintenance-crew error or management error, and it still would have been written off as a mechanical malfunction. Today the board incorporates a human-performance evaluation in almost every accident investigation.

You have criticized the macho image some pilots have of themselves.

Macho pilots are dangerous pilots. One was responsible for an Air Illinois crash in 1983. He was young, with a reputation for carrying a plane home on his back. He had just taken off on a 40-minute flight from Springfield to Carbondale when he lost one of his generators, and he couldn't get the other one on the line. His battery was only good for 30 minutes without the generator, and ahead of him lay a line of thunderstorms. Still, he decided to fly on to Carbondale. Predictably his battery died along with all his instrumentation. His plane hit a hillside in a driving rainstorm, killing all 10 aboard. It was an inexcusable accident.

Despite last year's alarming death count, there hasn't been an increase in the number of accidents since deregulation, has there?

The statistics measure only what has happened, not what might have happened—the near-accidents that provide a clearer picture of the state of airline safety.

Why don't these close calls get reported?

If pilots admit they did something wrong, their careers might be in jeopardy. In Britain pilots are given immunity if they report incidents in which government standards have been violated. But in this country the FAA forbids blanket immunity for fear some pilots will weasel out of a violation by running to report an incident in order to avoid FAA action. That lets a lot of problems slip through without being resolved.

Can you give an example?

Sure. Older versions of the Boeing 737 have a glitch: If you take off with ice on your wings, the plane likely will pitch up too soon, and the nose could continue to rise until the plane becomes uncontrollable. Usually the pilot can recover stability before the problem becomes life-threatening. Boeing says there are no reported incidents of this situation happening in North America, except in the Air Florida crash into the Potomac River in January 1982, yet I documented six cases myself while researching my book—and that was for just two carriers. U.S. pilots know that if they reported these incidents to the FAA, they'd be admitting they violated government standards that require them not to take off with ice on the wings.

Do airlines fail to admit safety violations?

Such a case occurred several years ago involving Downeast Airlines, basically a Mom-and-Pop charter operation that maintained daily service between Boston and Rockland, Maine. But because the Rockland airport was covered with fog most of the year, keeping to the schedule was difficult. Downeast pilots were encouraged to ignore FAA standards and fly below the 440-foot minimum on approach to Rockland. Pilots were flying at 275 feet to try to find the runway. The FAA inspector was aware of this, but since nobody would admit it, he couldn't charge Downeast with specific violations, and the airline always got a clean bill of health. Well, on one flight in May of 1979, the chief pilot flew through the fog and into the woods, killing all but one of the 18 people on board.

Last year American Airlines, one of the most profitable carriers, got socked with $1.5 million in penalties for sloppy maintenance. Why did this happen?

Look at the company's record of expansion over the last few years. It has bought scores of airplanes, started flight operation centers called hubs in Denver and Nashville and just announced another new hub in San Juan. When Braniff collapsed American took over the lion's share of the Dallas-Fort Worth market, and it is still growing by leaps and bounds. In my mind expansion breeds instability and the potential for problems in maintenance, training and safety.

With fewer regulations to enforce, why can't the FAA place more emphasis on ensuring safety in the skies?

Since 1978 the number of air carriers has increased 250 percent, but the number of FAA air carrier inspectors has remained about the same—658 in 1978 and 674 today. Moreover the FAA was created in 1958 with the purpose of promoting as well as regulating aviation. So at times the FAA is more concerned with protecting a carrier than with maintaining public safety.

How has the FAA done under Reagan?

I saw the pain on the President's face at Fort Campbell when he spoke to the families of the Arrow Air crash victims. But if we keep following the Reagan policies of less government and no additional funding for the FAA, safety will continue to deteriorate. Also the FAA is still too political an organization to be an effective oversight agency. Because of FAA indifference for instance, we're only now getting around to permitting infant-restraint seats in airplanes. Before, you held small children in your lap, which was a death sentence for them in a crash. During an accident, they turned into cannonballs. Another example: No one has ever done an in-depth study of rear-facing seats. In C-141 military transports, all seats face backward so you have no way of striking your head on the seat in front of you. But this issue has been pushed aside in commercial aviation. It's scandalous.

If you had to put a price tag on improving safety, how much would it cost?

I'd be guessing, but if you added just $2 per ticket, it would go a long way toward funding airline safety programs.

Do you avoid certain airlines or aircraft?

I tend to stay with the major carriers. And I won't fly on a commuter airline I know nothing about. As for aircraft, I still love the 737, and I imagine the DC-10 is probably the most inspected aircraft in the world. I am careful of flying on older airplanes, and I'm leery of many of the 727-100s that are getting long-in-the-tooth. If I saw an excellent but complicated plane like the Electra operated by an upstart airline that might not have the sophisticated maintenance necessary to keep it airworthy, I'd stay on the ground.

From Our Partners