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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Promises vs. Action

The forked tongue of the Reagan administration is now airborne. It belongs to Secretary of Tran­sportation Drew Lewis, who tells us regularly on the television screen that airline safety is his top priority even as he refuses to reopen negotiations with the air traffic controllers. He also adds that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is pursuing its safety responsibilities to the traveling public. That is half of the fork—verbal in nature.

Now comes the other half of the fork—actual deeds. The FAA, led by administrator J. Lynn Helms and Drew Lewis, has withdrawn six important safety proposals. Five of these initiatives were made by the FAA itself before Reagan became president.

In swift order, Helms and Lewis have dropped:

  1. A proposed rule to require the review of aircraft designs, such as the Boeing 747 and the DC-10, once every 10 years. The current practice allows airplanes to be manufactured indefinitely under the old stan­dards without reflecting subsequent improvements in safety technology.
  2. A long-standing consumer proposal to strengthen the tie-down mechanisms of seats so that they do not break off in minor takeoff or landing crashes and hurl occupants around the cabin. Few passengers know that the seats in their cars are anchored to take twice the force aircraft passenger seats can take. 3. An FAA move to require all airplanes to use new tires that meet the upgraded 1979 tire safety standards by 1984 instead of letting airlines use up their inventories of less safe tires.
  3. A proposal to give the FAA greater access to flight data recorders and cockpit voice-recorded data to understand better the human factors in air safety.
  4. A proposal to decrease the flammability of crew uniforms.
  5. A proposal to limit commuter pilot flight time to 40 hours a week instead of 70 hours a week. Air-carrier pilots currently are restricted to 30 hours a week to prevent fatigue. Helms is known to want to cut back severely the FAA’s involvement in the issue of pilot flight time.

Helms has not learned the lessons of the avoidable DC-10 disaster near Paris in 1974. Well before that crash, which took more than 300 lives, the FAA became aware of the danger in the DC-10. The FAA administrator, John Shaffer, agreed with a McDonnell Douglas executive not to issue an airworthiness directive to fix the problem and instead relied on an oral assurance by the company. This is a strange way for a law enforcement safely agency to operate.

Nonetheless, Helms recently held a closed-door meeting with top airline and aircraft manufacturing executives to see which regulations they wanted eliminated. He promised them the FAA would go “where you want to go” and do “what you want to do.”

Possessed with this permissiveness, Helms an­nounced that he would not require any company to install a collision-avoidance system unless it was, necessary. Presumably a major midair collision would be necessary before Helms replaces corporate voluntarism with a long-overdue safety device with a mandatory standard.

Now from another quarter come warning signals via a just-released study from the National Tran­sportation Safety Board (NTSB), which analyzed survivable air crashes since 1970. The board reported that “many of the 1,850 injuries or deaths in major survivable air carrier crashes since 1970 could have been prevented had not the aircraft seats, occupant restraints or cabin furnishings failed”

The NTSB was referring to hazardous levels of flammability of cabin furnishings that release deadly gases inside the fuselage, weak seats and belts, and blocked access to exits. Some of the current FAA crashworthiness standards were last updated “30 years ago,” the study said in strongly urging the FAA to get moving on greater safety.

So much for Secretary Lewis’ misleading assurances that the FAA is active on safety. It seems that doing tomorrow what should have been done 25 years ago just won’t happen until disasters prod this backstepping agency into some forward motion.