Steve Chapman

A carrier that truly shortchanges safety is not only risking the obvious loss of valuable equipment, hard-to-replace employees and loyal customers, but putting itself in danger of extinction. Get a reputation for recklessness, and travelers will flee your airline like the Titanic.

If greed were truly grounds to dispense with caution, the nation's tarmacs would be littered with corpses. Since 2001, the industry has lost some $27 billion -- inspiring investor Warren Buffett to say that if there had been a far-sighted capitalist watching at Kitty Hawk, he would have shot the Wright brothers' plane down. If there was ever an industry that might be driven to desperate measures, this is it.

Yet as airline finances have suffered, safety has prospered. Just in the last decade, the fatality rate has plunged by 82 percent. Last year there was not a single death stemming from accidents involving scheduled carriers. The decline has occurred even as the number of planes and people in the air has greatly increased.

It's hard to believe this improvement stems from the stern vigilance of federal regulators. In the first place, Congress now tells us that, actually, regulation hasn't been nearly vigilant enough.

In the second, it's far-fetched to think that, in a business where there are nearly 27,000 flights per day, the FAA can prevent a reprobate carrier from cheating if it really wants to. The agency simply doesn't have enough personnel to monitor everything that could go wrong.

It may come as a surprise that the traveling public has to rely chiefly on the self-interest of airlines to keep their planes in one piece. But guess what? It works.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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