As Americans step onto planes for their summer vacations, the
Valujet crash last month continues to stir deep-rooted fears and
questions. Which airlines are safest? Why don't Federal aviation
officials tell the public what they know?
As often as those officials try to explain that crashes are
unpredictable occurrences, travelers insist they want to know the
relative safety of different airlines.
Part of the problem lies in the ambiguity of the word "safe." Top
Government aviation officials have used the term over and over to
describe Valujet, and all other U.S. airlines.
Somehow, though, to the public, which has been bombarded with
images of salvage crews in the Everglades and reports of the Federal
Aviation Administration's long-standing concerns about Valujet, the
word "safe" sounds off-key.
But what is safe? Is boarding a metal tube that hurtles through
the air at hundreds of miles an hour ever safe? Better, perhaps,
never to leave home. But isn't flying supposed to be safer than
driving across the country or across town? Considering the number of
people who die in airplane crashes, the answer is yes.
U.S. airlines are so safe now that accidents are largely random
events. The average passenger would have to take a flight every day
for thousands of years before he would be in a plane crash.
But in the age of sound bites, aviation officials often do not
have the time to make this point. Instead, they often oversimplify
the issue by talking about "one level of safety" and their drive for
"zero accidents." These phrases make consumers comfortable most of
the time but highly skeptical after a crash. Accidents make them
wonder if there are asterisks after these catchy phrases but no fine
print for the public to read.
Experts can say that certain regions of the world are more
dangerous than others for air travel, partly because of systemic
problems like antiquated radar equipment and inadequate training.
But despite the bountiful statistics on U.S. airlines and endless
attempts to slice the numbers every which way, a reliable index for
predicting crashes has proved elusive.
"There is no such animal," said Ed Perkins, the editor of the
Consumer Reports Travel Letter. "I can't sit here at my desk and
tell you that airline A is safer than airline B."
If there were a way to predict, the airlines would no doubt use it
in their marketing, as Volvo regularly touts the safety of its cars.
Some airlines often hint in their advertisements that they are safer
than their competitors, but no airline explicitly brags about its
One reason is that they know that the kind of human error that
appears to have led to the Valujet crash -- a mistake in labeling a
box of hazardous oxygen generators that were put on board flight 592
-- could easily befall any one of them. …