Flying Blind, Flying Safe.

I Find Karma (
Thu, 3 Apr 97 03:15:29 PST

The March 31, 1997 Time magazine features an excerpt from Mary Schiavo's
forthcoming book, _Flying Blind, Flying Safe_. In more than five years
as Inspector General of the Department of Transportation, she learned
lots of sick things about the FAA that left her "dismayed,
disillusioned, and afraid for the flying public."

ValuJet Flight 592 and TWA Flight 800 are just portents of some very
horrible times ahead for air travelers. Stifled continually by the
FAA's political prowess, Schiavo eventually decided that the best way to
bring about reform at the agency was to resign and tell their story.

[Memo to Rohit: a role model for Shemp!]

With this book, Schiavo continues her crusade to make the FAA more
responsive to safety issues, and less responsive to airline needs that
detract from safety. The book excerpts in _Time_ describe many horrors,
including how the ValuJet crash could be avoided.

> In its cost-benefit analysis, ... the FAA easily determined that the
> value of those lives didn't amount to much compared with the hard, cold
> billions that saving them would cost in aircraft-safety devices, in
> beefed-up monitoring of planes, pilots, and air traffic, and in airports
> hermetically sealed against bombs and hijacking. ... The terrorist
> bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, cost $1 billion.
> Trying to prevent another Pan Am 103 would cost $5 billion over 10
> years. Couldn't I understand? The numbers just didn't add up.

Okay, this is a purely economic standpoint the FAA is operating by, and
I can respect that even though it violates my moral sense that human
life is priceless.

What I cannot respect, however, is the FAA's reactionary model; the FAA
should be proactive when it comes to safety when clearly it is not:

> The FAA will not do anything until people die. ... Time and again,
> my office uncovered practices that would shock the public: sloppy
> inspections of planes, perfunctory review of pilots, lax oversight of
> airline procedures, disregard for bogus airplane parts, sievelike
> security at airports, antiquated air-traffic-control systems. Only with
> a major crash, only with people dead and sobbing survivors filling
> television screens, does the FAA step up to the plate and make changes.

Schiavo is very fair to the FAA, pointing out what it does well and what
it does poorly; in writing this book, she hopes to undo the poor things
so the FAA can be a bastion of consumer safety. She wants to avoid the
crisis situation the agency will find itself in, in a few years, if it
continues down its current slippery slope:

> In one meeting I attended, the FAA said that shortly after the turn of
> the century, aircraft accidents will increase dramatically. The
> officials [who were making the case for increased FAA funding] said
> matter-of-factly that if demand for flights increases at present rates
> and if growth of discount airlines keeps up at the current pace, we can
> expect a major crash every week or so after the turn of the century.

Discount airlines aren't the only culprits; since 1982 the National
Transportation Safety Board has been urging the FAA to order the
airlines to install better black boxes [the flight-data recorders that
can provide clues to the cause of an accident so that future such
problems can be avoided]. European airlines have been using advanced
black box technology for years. But because of airline lobbying, the
FAA did not want to compel airlines to install improved boxes, which
admittedly would cost a chunk of change to said airlines. As a result
of not having an advanced black box, we may never know what technical
glitch (if any) caused the downing of TWA 800 (assuming you don't buy
into the whole friendly fire argument). As a result, the same technical
failure may happen again, maybe soon.

Again, since the FAA is reactionary, it will take many more accidents
before retrofitting improved recording capabilities is compulsory.

By exposing the FAA's policies and practices, this book hopes to help
create public pressure for the agency to take a proactive stand on the
issues and activities it should be driving, as opposed to its current
reactive (if any activity at all!) stance. Sounds like a compelling
(and potentially horrifying) read; for example:

> Our studies of repair-station parts bins were mind boggling: 43% of
> the parts bought from manufacturers were bogus; a shocking 95% were
> fraudulent when they came from parts brokers. ... Over and over again,
> the FAA argued that the parts we found were authentic. ... In the end,
> after three years of investigation and 160 convictions [of bogus-parts
> sellers], the FAA has made few substantial changes in parts oversight.
> It isn't against the law to make bogus parts; it is only illegal to
> claim falsely they are certified by the FAA.

So the economic model that I could respect at the beginning of this post
breaks down because of externalities. An investigation of the FAA's own
Logistics Center -- where the agency kept the parts inventory for its
own fleet -- revealed that 39% of THEIR parts were suspect, and still
the FAA argued with the study, saying that the population sample was
tainted. So the FAA conducted their own investigation and found more
bogus parts than Schiavo had!

Yes, externalities are the problem, and left unchecked, there will be a
major airline crisis in the US in 3 years. This book is a call to arms.
I can't wait till it comes out so I can suck out the marrow of bits
within it.


I've got this great idea. Why don't we pitch it to the Franklin mint?
Fine pewter portraits of general apathy and major boredom singing,
"Whatever and Ever Amen." Oh well, maybe not, try again.
-- Ben Folds Five