Is the economy causing more planes to crash?
It's not your imagination. In 2007, there were 17 major air crashes. In 2008, there were 19. But the Flight Safety Foundation reports that so far this year, there have already been 11 crashes, and if we continue at this rate, the tally could exceed 20 by the end of the year.
Already, 499 people have died this year, which is significantly more than the six-month average of 344 for this decade.
"The number of major crashes during the past five years is higher than recent five-year periods, a disturbing trend to aviation safety advocates who have seen steady and dramatic improvements in recent decades," according to a USA Today story..
While the cause is still being worked out in many cases, already fingers are pointing at circumstances that could be tied to cost-cutting by the carriers and an outdated transportation system.
In February, a Continental plane crashed en route to Buffalo, killing 50. Observers, implying that pilot income correlates with the safety of service delivered, pointed out that its the Continental-contracted co-pilot earned $23,900 a year.
On June 1, an Air France jumbo crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. The cause has not yet been ascertained, but its pilots union reportedly agitated to refuse to fly A330 and A340 jets until its bosses agreed to shell out enough money to replace the on-board speed monitors, which some investigators theorize caused the disaster. (Since then, a design flaw in the rudder has also been widely suspected as a factor.)
Passengers can relax somewhat. There may have been more crashes this year than since right after 9/11, but incidents are not skyrocketing, despite public perception. The years 2007 and 2008 were the safest in history for America's air industry, so the sudden spate of mishaps seems more pronounced.
For now, the airlines and the FAA appear to be keeping on top of maintenance issues -- on July 6, the Mexican airline Aviacsa, was banned from the skies, joining three other Mexican carriers currently grounded for safety violations.
While some perceive that as a sign of deteriorating standards, we could just as easily take it as a sign that regulators aren't allowing carriers to get away with falling standards.
But there are still risks posed by cutbacks. In February, the Wall Street Journal noted that while incidence of mechanical failures is not alarmingly escalated, concerns were rising about the management of ground-based risks, such as bird strikes and near-misses.
Partly from perpetually high volume and partly due to complacency, our old flight control systems are increasingly inadequate for the demands being placed on them, and the slight down-tick in scheduled flights has not solved the systemic disintegration.
If bad maintenance isn't causing us to lose jets, our antiquated, under-funded systems pose a much clearer risk. The FAA has been begging Congress to authorize NextGen, a $20 billion re-imagining of the national air traffic control system, but so far, its best public relations efforts have not been given a high priority by Congress.
The FAA Reauthorization Act now wending its way through Capitol Hill will, if passed, develop the idea for the next few years, although where the money will come from has not been authoritatively settled.
Even if the recent wrecks are mere coincidence and not the result of lax maintenance, perception is a powerful force. Passengers may still be scared off, and that may dent the airlines' solvency further.
Fuel rates aside, expenses are going up for airlines. Insurance rates are rising, partly in response to these crashes, and a FAA proposal to require each seat to contain an airbag will cost carriers an estimated $1,250 per seat to install.
No logical person could cogently claim that airplanes are statistically unsafe. An MIT professor calculates that the chance of dying in an American large-jet disaster are about one in 20 million, an astronomical rarity that's quoted often to soothe frayed nerves.
Because of the FAA, the airlines seem to be holding things together. But who's looking after the FAA itself? And who will make sure its own underfunded systems won't fail us?
If you're looking to Congress to come soaring over the horizon to solve this particular public health problem, you may be staring at empty skies for a while.