Creating Too Much Drag

Rich Tucker

4/11/2008 11:36:11 AM - Rich Tucker

Why does an airplane fly?

Most of us assume it’s a delicate balance of aerodynamic principles we’re not smart enough to understand (lift, thrust) combined with skilled piloting. But perhaps that’s not the case. Apparently, as with so many other things, it’s federal intervention that keeps planes aloft. At least, that’s what one would believe from media coverage of the airline industry.

In recent days, concerns raised by regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration led American Airlines to ground its fleet of MD-80 aircraft to fix a wiring problem. The airline cancelled more than 2,400 flights and stranded thousands of passengers. The FAA’s been busy. It also recently fined Southwest Airlines a record $10.2 million for alleged violations involving cracks in some of its planes.

In The Washington Post, columnist Ruth Marcus echoed the conventional media wisdom when she wrote that the real problem is a lack of federal oversight on the airline industry. “The lapses are symptomatic, too, of much deeper problems across the government,” she wrote on April 9. “This administration’s allergy to government intervention and affection for the private sector have contributed to a spate of regulatory failures, from lead in imported toys to dangerous prescription drugs to subprime mortgages.”

But when it comes to airlines, the problem isn’t a lack of regulation, it’s an excess of regulation.

Consider: There are industries where the consumer is several steps removed from the producer. We’ll probably never meet the farmer who grows our veggies, or the day laborer who picks them or the truck driver who delivers them. That may, or may not, mean these industries should be regulated. In any event, they are.

But when it comes to airlines, the companies are working in the harshest light possible. A single mistake can down a plane. If that happens hundreds of people will die, the media will cover it for days and, in all likelihood, the airline will go out of business. Remember Pan Am, TWA and ValuJet? They didn’t last very long after fatal accidents, although ValuJet was reborn as AirTran.

Inside-the-Beltway types can’t grasp this fundamental principle. “Having just put a nervous 10-year-old on a Southwest plane and airily assured her that there was no reason to worry, I found the Southwest story particularly galling.” Marcus wrote.

Maybe she’s right. Maybe Southwest knowingly flew dangerous planes, thus putting hundreds of people, including its customers and employees, in peril. Maybe it was only the intervention of the feds that prevented disaster.

But it’s more likely Southwest knew what it was doing. As of this writing, the airline’s never had a fatal accident. “The important point is that at no time were we operating in an unsafe manner, and I think our history proves it,” company CEO Gary Kelly told CNN. Like all airlines, Southwest certainly realizes it’s just one crash away from bankruptcy. Because it aims to stay in business, it won’t fly dangerous planes.

It’s worth noting that airline passengers are safer today than they’ve been in years. There were 0.16 accidents per 100,000 flight hours in 2006, down from 0.31 accidents per 100,000 flight hours in 1987. Airlines are doing their job and getting people safely to their destination. Too bad the FAA isn’t keeping its end of the bargain.

According to The Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm, “the FAA has failed time and again to implement the upgrades the nation needs to manage the growth in air traffic. Our air-traffic control system is a national embarrassment.”

This, of course, is what the federal government should focus on. While each airline is concerned with keeping its planes in the air, we need a national system, not run by a particular airline, to tell us where those planes are and manage their takeoffs and landings. But the FAA hasn’t built that system.

“The FAA has consistently wasted billions over the past 25 years, often on programs that only get so far and are then cancelled,” The Boyd Group asserts. “And most of their major projects end up way over original cost estimates.”

Still, expect more FAA directives and more delays in the weeks ahead. “There’s always going to be extremes, just as there are in politics, and to some extent this is a political issue,” airline consultant Bob Harrell says. “Auditors get paid to audit, get paid to find things.” Airlines, of course, get paid to deliver passengers safely to their destinations.

A private business, one that’s understandably interested in making a profit by keeping its customers safe and alive, will do a better job protecting those customers than any federal bureaucracy ever can. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, those who trade their freedom to fly for federal security while doing so will receive neither -- and eventually lose both.