The Future of Flight Safety

A sobering examination of technology and aviation safety by Gerald Traufetter of Der Spiegel
by way of

There is no doubt that today's airplanes are so reliable that we tend to forget that we are sitting in an aluminum tube equipped with a full tank of kerosene and traveling at just below the speed of sound.

On the positive side:

There is currently less than one accident with fatal consequences for every million takeoffs and landings. Around 1960, at the beginning of the jet age, this figure was still at 11. If aviation were as unsafe today as it was in the 1970s, an airplane would fall from the sky once a week.

The question is how to sustain and improve this record, especially as world air traffic continues to grow. The failure of Air France flight 442 over the Atlantic on its way from Brazil led some partisans of Boeing jets question the higher degree of automation of the Airbus, as opposed to the more modular controls of Boeing designs. The so far unresolved issue is which is likely to be more lethal in the near future, computer failure or what the strategist Herman Kahn called a "warm, human error." US Airways flight 1549, landed safely by Chesley B. Sullenberger III in the Hudson early this year after both engines were disabled  by bird strikes, was also an Airbus. The sociologist Charles B. Perrow, a leading analyst of technological risk, believes we can't turn back the clock on computer control:

The computers multiply as we demand more of our systems, and the cognitive load on the humans who have to work them expands commensurately. But cognition is by nature limited. To push the envelope of travel (and so much else in our technological society), we'll have to program more and more of our brain capacities into the computer.

The feats of pilots like Chesley Sullenberger and United Airlines' Al Haynes remind us of the value of training and experience. But relying on superlative skills isn't enough. Bertolt Brecht's Galileo put it well: "Unhappy is the land that needs a hero."

Usually the safety technology of the future doesn't have to come from a crash program. The military often is well in advance of the civilian market; the aviation medicine researcher John Paul Stapp was campaigning for automotive seat belts in the 1950s. The Spiegel report cites improved interfaces under developed at a German research institute.

The concerns the article describes are hopeful signs. In safety matters, pride goeth before stagnation. Worry is good for us. Ten years ago air safety appeared to be stalled, according to at least one British aviation journalist, yet in part because of such criticism, it improved a lot. And the industry's critics may be more important than regulators. Because implementation of new safety proposals needs so many rounds of discussion at the FAA, as Matthew L. Wald pointed out early  this year in the New York Times, airlines often respond to public pressure without waiting for FAA mandates:

Sometimes the process is so slow that the F.A.A. persuades the airlines to solve problems outside the regulatory process. After a DC-9 operated by ValuJet crashed in the Everglades in May 1996 because of a fire in the cargo area, the F.A.A. doubted that the obvious fix -- the installation of fire detection and suppression equipment -- would pass muster with the White House because the cost might exceed the benefit. But following a public outcry, the airlines agreed to install the systems.

When cost-benefit analysis and statistical life values meet indignation, it's usually outrage that wins. And a good thing, too.