You Have to Get on the Plane to Find Out Where It’s Going

A friend booked a direct flight from Detroit to Lansing, Michigan.  He boarded the plane but it sat motionless for half an hour after scheduled takeoff.   Once airborne, the captain announced that he’d be making an unscheduled stop in Port Huron to pick up passengers.  They arrived in Lansing two hours late.  The annoying experience prolonged an already exhausting day.  It may have been the model for Rep. Pelosi’s arrogant “you have to pass it the bill so that you can find out what’s in it.” 

Aviation wackiness continues.  A Jet Blue pilot ran through his plane warning of terrorists and the need to “say your prayers”; passengers subdued him and he was given medical attention.  On another flight, a Jet Blue flight attendant spewed frustration over the intercom, deployed the emergency chute and slid down it saying he quit.  Job stress contributes to wacky behavior in any industry.

A few years ago it was more common to be detained on a tarmac-parked plane without food, water, or usable toilets.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) implemented fines for tarmac imprisonment and imposed a spectacular $900,000 levy on American Airlines Eagle for holding passengers captive for 3 hours.  The FAA’s PR team seized a juicy headline, but the cheesy back story is that the FAA kept 2/3rds of the fine for itself and expects the airline to distribute the rest in the form of discount coupons and rebates, much like the cents-off coupons tort attorneys give to successful class-action plaintiffs.   As usual, the politicians get to strut for the cameras and blather about protecting the consumer.  The reality is that consumers get skewered by the airline and then short changed by the government. 

Airline consumers face serious peril due to some other legal and regulatory failures.  

Has an on-the-clock nap become a standard perk for the air traffic controllers?  Napping air traffic controllers play Russian roulette with the lives of crews and passengers.  Why do FAA rules (and federal employee contracts) allow the fools to stay on the payroll?

The FAA’s ATOS system is a broad set of safety standards such as airplane maintenance, crew credentials and work hours.  The Department of Transport’s Inspector General published a report on the ATOS system, revealing that since started in 1998, the program has been a failure.  FAA inspectors failed to complete more than 200 key inspections on time, and some of those are “airworthiness directives,” items that by federal law require immediate attention.  What excuse permits ignoring an airworthiness directive?

The FAA and DOT seem to cave in to outside pressures.  Until recently they allowed an exemption for planes carrying lithium ion batteries, generally considered hazardous cargo.  Another example of lethal timidity is the FAA’s aviation safety action program (ASAP) that was intended to collect safety information from airlines.  Not all airlines participated.  The FAA allowed it to be a voluntary program so that airlines would reveal proprietary maintenance performance information, supposedly a competitive secret.  The FAA’s tolerance of this “competitive information protection” theme jeopardizes consumer safety.   After a 1995 American Airlines crash in Cali, Colombia, American Airlines refused to disclose internal safety information.  American claimed that without non-disclosure guarantees, air carriers will be reluctant to join programs like ASAP, and there is no law that says airlines have to divulge their private information to the FAA.

Limits on tarmac imprisonment are mainly about consumer convenience.  Bans on air traffic controllers sleeping on the job and enforcement of airworthiness directives are primarily safety issues.  Having access to maintenance details in the wake of an airline crash is a passenger safety issue.  It is not foremost a competitive issue and it is not primarily a defense attorney convenience. 

Like taxes, regulations can impose deadweight losses on businesses.  When dealing with others’ safety, the deadweight “cost” of important safety regulations can be warranted.  Good judgment is required to craft regulations that achieve truly important protections rather than regulations that achieve trivial gains, or that mostly serve the regulators’ or the businesses’ convenience.  Protecting future airline passengers from crashes is truly important.  The FAA should have the power to compel airlines to reveal any relevant safety policy and performance information that might help prevent future calamities, regardless of the inconvenience that poses to the airline’s marketers and defense attorneys.

Alan Daley is a retired businessman living in Florida who follows public policy from a consumer’s perspective.

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