THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 7, 2019 --
Fear of flying? Never. Fear about
flying? Little bit.
In 40+ years on the road, I've never had a fear of flying. Never had many bad experiences. Closest I've ever come to a crash was when I spun out on the ice speeding to the airport to make a Hong Kong flight. I did once land on a frozen lake in Maine when my Cessna from Presque Isle lost a magneto. And there was a creepy day when my Lufthansa flight aborted a landing at JFK because there was another aircraft on the runway and, a few hours later, my shuttle flight aborted a Washington/National landing because there was another aircraft on the runway. A pair of identical rejected landings within hours gives you pause, but not fear.
Lately, though, the tone and tenor of the airlines--and the aircraft makers--has changed radically. They simply don't seem to care as much about safety as they once did. That makes me fearful about
The numbers, of course, say that's a lie. Flying fatalities are at or near record lows in the United States and Canada and are decreasing rapidly worldwide. We are, statistically speaking, safer on a plane than on any highway or train. And, yeah, that old trope is true: More people die in their bathrooms than on commercial flights.
But we may also have been lucky. Very, very, very lucky.
You can't watch Boeing's appalling testimony before the House
last week and not be shaken. So many shortcuts taken. So many red lights run. So many slovenly choices made. So many moves that placed profit over people, dollars over safety, corporate imperatives over aircraft intelligence. And that is just what Boeing was willing to admit, which is only a fraction of what's been uncovered since the 737 MAX was grounded
Let's not be dewy-eyed waifs about this stuff. Safety is always
about risk versus reward, the balance of hard costs and hard choices. The only truly safe aircraft is one that never flies. Every plane that ever flew could have been safer, had more backup and redundancy and might have been a smidgen less risky if a lot more money had been spent.
There is always the trade-off, the educated guess, the real-world calculations. This much safety is worth spending on. That much is not because it's throwing good money at infinitesimal risk.
But Boeing's Congressional testimony and the parade of other disclosures in the 13 months since Lion Air Flight 610
have been horrific. Boeing did bad things and did them with malice aforethought. It took risks it never should have taken, all to fatten its bottom line and to compete with Airbus. Boeing bet on our safety and our lives like a drunken gambler hoping to roll boxcars with his last $100 chip.
Boeing turned our lives into a gamble, but so many airlines were right there cheering it along. Lion Air passed on a pair of safety features Boeing wanted it to buy. So did Ethiopian Airlines, whose Flight 302
went down just months after Lion Air 610. Maybe Boeing should not have been selling safety features as optional equipment, but neither carrier was a buyer. They took a pass on systems and procedures Boeing said would make the plane safer.
There's something else here, too. The pilot of Ethiopian Flight 302 was just 29 years old. His co-pilot had only 200 hours in a cockpit. Fast-growing carriers in developing countries are putting children in the skies, many with little or no experience, most ill-equipped, emotionally and physically, to pilot a modern aircraft.
Airlines demand planemakers develop aircraft that can be flown by rookies. More automatic and more computerized. Choose your own imagery. Borg planes. Zombie planes. Flying Roombas. Call them what you will, but airlines want planes that fly themselves while interns sit in the cockpit and buff their gold braids.
This is not safety. This is not anything like an enlightened environment for safe flying. This is rolling bones and hoping for boxcars. It is madness. It will kill some of us.
You may say this is not how the U.S. airlines operate and I would agree, but only to a degree. The FAA requires 1,500 hours of experience before pilots are allowed to work in a commercial cockpit. But that rule came about only after the catastrophe of Continental Flight 3407
. Airlines fought the change, of course, and they've been whining ever since that the rule has caused a pilot shortage
. No matter that they pay starting pilots less than some truck drivers earn. Airlines believe young aviators should work cheap for the privilege of sitting in a cockpit.
To their credit, the 737 MAX series aircraft operated by American, Southwest and United do have some or all of the "optional" safety features that Boeing sold. Yet you know U.S. carriers cut corners elsewhere. They farm out crucial maintenance and repairs to cheaper contractors based overseas. Southwest and American long have blamed ongoing maintenance issues on their quarrels with mechanics. How many barely airworthy aircraft have you been on lately? And how many times must an aircraft fail before the airline pulls it out of service? As we've seen, it takes not one, not two, but three consecutive diversions
before a plane is removed from service. The incident list at Aviation Herald
, which tracks mechanicals, makes doleful daily reading.
Relying on regulators won't get us peace or safety, either. They are stretched beyond endurance. It's all well and good for Montana Senator Jon Tester to bellow that he'd "walk before I would get on a Boeing 737 MAX,"
but he and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle are equally guilty of starving the FAA and other oversight agencies of the funds they need. Wise-ass wags are fond of saying that the FAA inspects paperwork, not aircraft. These days, overworked and overwhelmed, the FAA even lets planemakers and airlines ink the rubber stamps.
U.S. and European regulators made a show this week by rejecting Boeing's documentation on the 737 MAX's revised software
. "We think there is still some work to be done," said Patrick Ky, boss of Europe's regulatory organization, which traditionally echoes the depleted FAA on aircraft approvals.
Indeed, there is work to be done. Much more than there used to be. And there just doesn't seem to be the will or the determination among the airlines, aircraft makers, regulators or politicians to insist that safety comes first.
I no longer see a culture of safety. Only a culture of cut corners.
Fear of flying? Not me. But every day, in every way, I now have fear about