Posted 2/18/2004 8:08 PM
Traveling public pays price for FAA's slow decisions
By David M. Primo and Roger W. Cobb
In its day, Trans World Airlines earned the nickname "Try Waiting Awhile" from road warriors fed up with air travel. Unfortunately, this also is an apt moniker for the Federal Aviation Administration's mode of decision-making after the 1996 midair explosion of TWA Flight 800, which was downed by a volatile fuel-air mixture in its center fuel tank.
Tuesday, the FAA announced it plans to require that most Boeing and Airbus jets be retrofitted with an instrument that will reduce the risk of similar explosions. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates crashes but must rely on the FAA to push new rules, has been requesting this reform for years, going as far as to list it as one of its "most wanted transportation safety improvements." But the FAA's proposal does not require work to be complete until 2013. Do the math: That's 17 years after the crash that brought fuel-tank explosions to the attention of regulators.
This is standard operating procedure for the FAA. It isn't until 2008 that Boeing 737s must be retrofitted with new rudder control systems, which are intended to correct deficiencies that led to the 1994 crash of a USAir flight outside Pittsburgh. In a larger study, the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, found that the FAA takes too long to implement regulations.
The problem is not that the FAA does not act; our research has found that it accepts about 80% of NTSB safety recommendations. The problem is that it takes too long to do so. If a business changed this slowly, it would be bankrupt.
Studying the studies
The FAA delayed action on the fuel-tank issue for so long by continuing to require further study rather than making a determination that a particular level of fuel-tank safety would be required. Its defense is that complex safety issues require extensive study and that the new cost-effective technique for preventing fuel-tank explosions was discovered only recently by an FAA researcher.
But the airlines are likely to balk at the cost of the proposal, and the price tag of as much as $700 million does seem steep, especially given existing technologies that reduce the risk of fuel-tank explosions, to a large degree. What has the FAA achieved here, besides a potentially wasteful regulation that it took years to propose?
These delays are symptomatic of larger problems with FAA decision-making. Because of political pressures that arise after a major crash, the agency spends too much time investigating high-profile tragedies, such as the TWA crash, while not necessarily taking any concrete actions. This also takes away from monitoring other aspects of aviation safety.
The FAA does consider the financial consequences of its new regulations, but it ignores what economists call opportunity costs. There is a price to pay for focusing on one regulation for 10 years: namely, all of the safety issues ignored during that time frame. Perhaps fuel-tank safety deserved close scrutiny, but we doubt the FAA has any hard evidence indicating that its time is spent efficiently.
President Bush has called for a cut in the FAA's budget, but this isn't a long-term solution. Our study of aviation politics suggests that these problems require a new approach to policymaking that provides incentives to think proactively rather than focus on events as they occur.
Unfortunately, Sept. 11, 2001, further distorted regulatory priorities. Aviation safety, with few exceptions, has received short shrift in the past two years. The air traffic control system, crucial to maintaining safety in the skies and on the runways, currently runs on antiquated computers that are being upgraded at a glacial pace. Near misses in the skies and collisions on the runways are real threats, but too little is being done to address them. Critics also have raised concerns about the outsourcing of maintenance, an increasingly common practice as airlines face cost-cutting pressures.
Will it take a safety-related tragedy before there is significant movement on these fronts?
So as you can see it's no surprise to those of us who had loved ones killed on sr111 that the FAA despite knowing that mylar blankets were flammable, drug their feet on ordering the replacements. The FAA received warnings from the Chinese and still didn't act. And let's not forget how they have extended the deadline for these replacements at least twice. Just more of the same from the FAA.
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