Walter E. Williams
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William J. McGee, the consumer advocate on the Department of Transportation's Future of Aviation Advisory Committee wrote "Forcing the F.A.A. to Fly Blind" in The New York Times (April 9, 2011), where he laments Congress' cut in the FAA budget, saying, "A $4 billion cut will necessarily reduce the work force further. And it's hard to imagine this will not diminish safety." Mr. McGee suggests there will be shortcuts in aircraft maintenance.

Here are a few facts and then a question. Each Boeing 747 costs $317 million, its 777 goes for $284 million and its 737 sells for $80 million. Airbus' giant 555-plus passenger A380 sells for $375 million. Here's a true or false statement: If it weren't for the FAA, airline company CEOs would not take the necessary measures to ensure that their aircraft took off and landed safely.

I'd say the statement is false. Even if CEOs didn't give a hoot about passengers, I'm betting that they do care, without FAA edicts, whether billions of dollars worth of aircraft landed and took off safely, and they will spend enough on maintenance to ensure that.

Mr. McGee might say that without the FAA mandates, airlines would spend less on safety. Whether we acknowledge it or not, there is such a thing as being too safe, as well as being not safe enough. Typically, it's only the effects of not being safe enough that are visible. There are the crashes, injuries and fatalities.

The effects of being over-safe are less visible. They are revealed when we recognize that too many safety measures such as unnecessary maintenance, early parts replacements and inspections costs money. If airline companies are to remain profitable and in business, passenger fares must reflect such costs. Because of higher fares, some families will opt to drive to their destination. Highway travel is not nearly as safe as air travel. Therefore, some highway fatalities might be because higher fares have forced people to drive instead of fly.

Witnessing a highway fatality, few would attribute it to FAA edicts. By the way, FAA officials have an incentive to err on the side of being over-safe because the victims of their policy are invisible and the agency suffers no public embarrassment and blame.

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Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
 
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