How Safe is Your Plane?
In March 2010 alone, two legacy carriers -- Northwest Airlines and American Airlines -- racked up hefty civil penalties from the FAA for violations involving the safety of mechanics aboard airplanes operating passenger flights.
On March 12, American Airlines was fined $787,500 for three safety violations. The FAA said the airline flew a McDonnell Douglas MD-82 jetliner on 10 passenger flights after mechanics diagnosed a problem with one of the airplane's Central Air Data Computers (the flight control system) that should have been fixed. The flight crew was led to believe the problem was repaired. American Airlines was also accused of operating passenger flights without following an FAA airworthiness directive -- rules issued by the FAA when a condition on a plane is deemed unsafe and additional maintenance is required to fix the problem -- related to the inspection of rudder components.
And on March 23, failure by Northwest Airlines to inspect airplane wires located near the cockpit windows that are used for heating led to another FAA penalty of nearly $1.5 million.
"Basically, the problems with the wires is that they could eventually cause overheating and smoke and fire if you found a problem and didn't correct it," says Alison Duquette, an FAA spokesperson.
The FAA says that Northwest Airlines flew more than 90,000 flights from late 2005 until the wiring problem was discovered. And the airline continued to fly more than 40 flights before completing the inspection of all its planes.
While hearing about these issues is unnerving, even when you're on safe ground, the experts say there is no reason to panic. A potentially unsafe condition doesn't mean the actual planes are unsafe, says Duquette.
"The FAA's position is that if we're allowing the airline to operate, they are safe. By the time a civil penalty against an airline is imposed by the FAA, the airline has already fixed or resolved the issue that came up."
Still, a particularly alarming fine certainly sets alarm bells ringing. When Southwest Airlines was slapped with a whopping $10.2 million fine in 2008 (the case later settled for $7.5 million) for failing to check for fuselage cracks and fatigue in its airplanes, shocks were felt throughout the industry. Of the 46 Southwest Airlines planes later inspected, six were found to have cracks.
"That one's reverberating because it is a big fine," says Charles Justiz, a NASA pilot and aviation safety consultant. "Fuselage cracks sound scary, and they are, but your car drives with cracks, and it doesn't make it necessarily riskier. All fuselages have cracks. But by the same token, if you find a crack of a certain size, there are maintenance procedures to follow."
The fact remains that aviation has never been safer than it is today, says Justiz. "If you look at the safety records of the airlines, I think they are running a fatality every 2 billion hours, so it's ridiculously safe. But that said, when you have a safety record like that it's very easy to get complacent, to let yourself slip and fall into bad habit patterns."
Like the regulations themselves and the evolving technologies, safety concerns have changed over the years.
"The major causes of accidents 20 years ago were controlled flights into terrain -- like hearing about a plane flying into a mountainside," says Duquette. "Those things you don't hear about anymore because we have equipment that allows pilots to take evasive action."
Duquette says that the FAA's biggest safety concerns today relate to runway incursions -- when two airplanes collide on a runway, or an airplane collides with operational equipment on the runway. Still, maintenance-related FAA fines pile up.
"I think what they are doing with these big fines is letting the airlines know you can't sweep things under the rug," says Captain Karen Kahn, a longtime pilot with one of the US legacy carriers. "We certainly have a lot more regulation than we had in the past. But fines seem to be what people understand as penalties -- when it gets really bad, they ground different parts of the fleets of airlines."
In 2009, US Airways was hit with a $5.4 million fine for failing to comply with airworthiness directives. The FAA accused the airline of operating 19 flights using an aircraft that was not in compliance with an order requiring inspections to prevent a cargo door from opening during flight.
Also in 2009, the FAA proposed a $3.8 million fine against United Airlines after it was found to have operated a Boeing 737 aircraft on more than 200 flights in violation of maintenance procedures relating to one if its engines.
After a United 737 flight was forced to return to Denver after shutting down an engine due to low oil pressure, mechanics discovered that shop towels had been used to cover openings in the oil sump area instead of the protective caps that are required. The FAA determined that this maintenance oversight led to the aircraft being flown in a condition that was not airworthy, endangering passengers and crew.
And in February 2010, American Eagle was fined $2.5 million by the FAA for failing to ensure that the weight of baggage aboard flights had been properly calculated -- on at least 154 passenger flights, it was determined that the baggage weight listed on cargo hold records did not sync with the company's Electronic Weight and Balance System. Once the situation was brought to the attention of American Eagle, the FAA said the airline continued to operate at least 39 flights without correcting the problem.
"An airplane only has so much weight it can carry, the certificated weight," explains Justiz, "And there's a balance point -- after a certain point you're outside of your center of gravity limits and the airplane won't fly."
But as the statistics substantiate (your chances of dying in a plane crash on an American carrier are around one in 13 million), flying is an extremely safe mode of transport, says Justiz.
"That said, I don't believe in the word safety," he concedes, "there's no such thing. It's 'How much risk are you accepting?' After a certain point, you don't want to accept the risk, so you don't fly the airplane.
"In my opinion, the recent fines do not mean the risk to the flying public has increased. What happened is the FAA raised their hands to the airlines and said 'Why aren't you doing this? You should be managing the risk to this point.' It was a subtle point but a valid one."