Why Federal Aviation Officials Don't Rank Airlines for Safety

By Adam Bryant N. Y. Times News Service | THE JOURNAL RECORD, June 12, 1996 | Go to article overview

Why Federal Aviation Officials Don't Rank Airlines for Safety


Adam Bryant N. Y. Times News Service, THE JOURNAL RECORD


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 record.

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. …

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