Toughen Up the Rules of the Sky

The events were depressingly familiar. After the crash of Egyptair Flight 990, the National Transportation Safety Board rushed into action, marshaling people and equipment and spending millions of dollars to recover as much of the airplane as possible in order to find out the cause of the crash.

The events were depressingly familiar. After the crash of Egyptair Flight 990, the National Transportation Safety Board rushed into action, marshaling people and equipment and spending millions of dollars to recover as much of the airplane as possible in order to find out the cause of the crash.

The federal government is expert at recovering wreckage, but not so good at preventing wrecks. We don’t know what caused this week’s crash. But the Federal Aviation Administration could take action right now to prevent future crashes. It could toughen safety rules that airlines must follow and require the adoption of safety devices and techniques used elsewhere.

For example, in 1997, after its investigation of the Trans World Airlines Flight 800 crash off Long Island, the transportation safety board insisted in its report that the F.A.A. take action to reduce the danger of explosions in center fuel tanks, which are in the body of the plane rather than in the wings. One remedy would be to have airlines adopt technology from military aircraft that use foam and other materials inside tanks to keep oxygen from getting near the fuel. The next year, an F.A.A. advisory panel found that center fuel tanks in most American airliners were dangerously hot 30 percent of their operating time because they were placed next to heat sources like outflows from air conditioners. Yet rather than ordering changes right away based on these reports, the F.A.A. responded last week with weak measures, proposing better tank maintenance and study of new tank design.

Poorly placed fuel tanks are not the only fire hazard the agency has failed to address adequately. It should require that smoke detectors and heat-activated systems to release foam or other fire suppressants be placed in all areas that are inaccessible to an airplane’s crew. The fire that caused the 1995 Valujet air disaster in Florida spread from the cargo hold. The one in the Swissair jet that crashed off Newfoundland in 1998 is thought to have begun in the ceiling of the passenger cabin.

The agency should also require all American airplanes to carry up-to-date black boxes, which have their own internal power sources and gather far more data than older models and record cockpit voices for much longer periods. Boxes like this, used by many European airlines, send the data to ground stations that can provide flight crews with early warning and analysis of flight abnormalities. The aviation industry and some pilot unions oppose these upgraded boxes because the data could be used to discipline pilots or in lawsuits. But they are needed to help us learn from crashes.

The agency is also allowing dangerous practices on the ground. For instance, at many airports intersecting runways are now used simultaneously. And at busy airports, an airplane can be cleared to land or take off on a runway before the plane already on the runway has left it. This has led to at least two near-misses at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and a steady increase in incidents of planes moving inadvertently onto runway space assigned to other aircraft.

Cargo and mail are still being loaded onto passenger jets without being screened for explosives or radioactivity, although two presidential commissions on aviation security have recommended that the practice no longer be allowed.

In some areas it regulates, the aviation agency is not even living up to the safety requirements in its rule books. For example, it is allowing safety systems in some new airliner designs to be evaluated by analysis based on past tests, mathematical models and computer simulations, rather than requiring actual testing. The agency waived full-scale emergency evacuation tests for the Boeing 777-300, for example, and certified the plane in 1998 to carry 550 occupants even though actual tests had been used only for a smaller model model (the Boeing 777-200) that carried 419 people.

Every year, the agency also grants the airline industry an astounding 300 waivers or exemptions from federal safety rules. For example, while a rule requires that the aisle between seats leading to emergency window exits be 20 inches wide, the F.A.A. has made exceptions to allow spaces as small as 14 inches and is considering a further relaxation to 10 inches. Today there are more than 3,000 waivers of various kinds.

It is true that commercial air travel continues to be among the safest forms of travel. But if standards are not kept high, the industry’s record could quickly deteriorate. To assure that they are, the United States should establish an independent federal aviation safety and security agency, leaving the F.A.A. to operate air traffic control. Congress should also form an air passenger association, financed in part by a two-cent refundable fee on each ticket and controlled by passengers, to counter the powerful airline industry lobby. And Congress should hold regular, vigorous aviation safety oversight hearings.

Neglecting air safety is like stretching a rubber band. At a certain point, the rubber band snaps.

Originally published in The New York Times, November 6, 1999.

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