If you're afraid of flying there's reason to relax

Three times as many people lose their lives in car accidents each year than have perished in U.S. airline disasters during the entire 20th century.

In their new book, The Plane Truth, authors Roger Cobb and David Primo examine airline safety and a host of other issues ranging from the way media coverage of airline disasters influences transportation policy to airline security since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

For those unfamiliar with the subject, the authors begin with a primer on aviation industry structure and briefly discuss key developments in recent aviation history.
Chief among the institutions charged with keeping air travel safe is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is responsible for regulating and promoting all air transportation in the U.S. The National Transportation Safety Board investigates air crashes and makes safety recommendations to the FAA.

Congressional committees in the House and Senate oversee FAA rule making. Members of Congress can also write legislation directing the agency to adopt or rescind particular safety guidelines, but usually defer to the FAA. Major industry stakeholders such as the Airline Pilots Association and the industry’s Air Transport Association also compete to influence NTSB investigations and regulatory decisions made by the FAA and Congress.

The media also influences the aviation policy-making process, said Cobb and Primo.

By focusing lots of attention on air disasters, journalists and reporters are able to influence the priorities of policymakers in Washington. But while high-profile crashes often generate more attention from policymakers, they do not always translate into more government regulatory action.

The cozy relationship between the airline industry and the FAA probably contributes to the agency’s reluctance to adopt new safety guidelines but, as the authors point out, politicians and bureaucrats are also cognizant of the political consequences of their actions.

Consumer demands for safety are often outweighed by demands for convenience and affordability. The flying public may want safe air travel, but they are not necessarily willing to wait in longer lines and pay higher ticket prices to get it. And it does not appear that they should be.

Air travel is the safest mode of transport that exists today. When planes crash it is a tragedy, but the reality is that the only way to eliminate risk entirely would be to end air travel altogether. Those charged with keeping the industry safe must consider the balance between risk and safety that the flying public, whom they exist to serve, is willing to tolerate.

Even when Congress or the FAA issue new guidelines, they are often only symbolic.

The 1996 crash of ValuJet flight 592 in the Florida Everglades, for example, led Congress to change the FAA’s dual mandate to regulate and promote the airline industry. Regulating the industry was made the agency’s primary mission, in light of post-crash findings indicating that it was not acting aggressively enough to enforce safety guidelines.

Cosmetic changes to the FAA’s mission statement gave members of Congress an opportunity to demonstrate their concern for air safety, but probably wouldn’t have prevented the ValuJet crash.

Cobb and Primo also discuss the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and how they, like other air disasters, served as triggering events that changed the priorities of Washington policymakers. Mechanical safety, which dominated the agenda prior to the attacks, quickly became a secondary concern as resources were diverted to bolster aviation security.

Cobb and Primo document many of the changes in airline security that have been implemented since, but worry that reactive aviation policies that change with each new catastrophic aviation accident will never be adequate.

Although The Plane Truth is an easy to understand introduction to the commercial airline industry, its authors fail to offer much new insight into the policymaking process. Most people know the media tends to exaggerate disaster stories (witness the overblown coverage of Hurricane Isabel last week) and that government agencies, including the FAA, walk a fine line between responsible safety policies and regulatory excess.

It is no surprise that the institutions charged with regulating the industry must balance competing interests responsibly and that they sometimes fail to do so.

If you want to learn the basics, read this book. If you are looking for it to chart new territory, you may want to pass.