The government crackdown on airlines over alleged safety lapses fits a familiar storyline: Conscientious regulators saving the public from heartless corporations that put lives at risk to fatten profits. It's a tale that would be perfect for a movie -- since movies are famous for taking liberties with the truth.
In real life, this story may not have a happy ending. By forcing the cancellation of thousands of flights, the Federal Aviation Administration most likely did not prevent fatalities but caused them.
Commercial aviation, after all, is by far the safest form of travel. When people can't fly, many will drive. When they take to the road, they're at greater risk of ending up in the morgue. This is the law of unintended consequences with a vengeance.
What was the basis for the FAA's fateful action? Last month it slapped Southwest Airlines with $10 million in fines for flying planes that hadn't been inspected. Then American Airlines and other carriers scrubbed flights using MD-80 jets after the FAA took issue with how they secured certain wires in the wheel wells.
The agency said the wires have to be an inch apart, rather than the inch and a quarter American believed was sufficient. Executive Vice President Dan Garton said diplomatically that the FAA action suggests "a focus on extraordinarily strict adherence to specifics" that was not present in the past.
The FAA was embarrassed by the Southwest episode, which drew charges of dereliction from Capitol Hill, and it reacted with an uncharacteristic display of toughness on an old directive.
As The Washington Post reported, industry officials said that in the past, "the agency would probably have allowed the carrier to make the fixes over a period of days or weeks. They noted that the 2006 directive on the MD-80 wiring gave airlines 18 months to comply. That means that regulators, while concerned about the wiring, didn't believe that making the changes was a pressing safety matter."
But all of a sudden it became one, and the result was some 250,000 stranded travelers. The mass inconvenience would be justified if it meant saving even one or two lives. But unnoticed in the furor is that during all the time these carriers were doing something supposedly dangerous, it didn't cause any accidents. The carriers' definition of "safe" seems to have been vindicated.
That should come as no shock. As a rule, it makes sense to assume the industry puts great emphasis on safety. Aircraft manufacturers have a huge stake in producing safe vehicles, and airlines have powerful incentives not to crash those planes.
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.