The Lack of Aviation Accidents is making it Difficult to make Extremely Safe Flying any Safer

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 30th, 2012

Week in Review

Flying has never been safer.  Or more automated.  There have been so few accidents in the last decade that it’s getting harder to make safety improvements.  Because through much of the history of flying safety improvements followed the accidents (see Airline Crash Deaths Too Few to Make New Safety Rules Pay by Andrew Zajac posted 6/25/2012 on Bloomberg).

More than a decade has passed since the last major-airline accident on U.S. soil. That’s great news for aviation companies and their passengers — and a complication for rule makers trying to improve flight safety.

The benefits of aviation rules are calculated primarily on how many deaths they may prevent, so the safest decade in modern airline history is making it harder to justify the cost of new requirements.

“If anyone wants to advance safety through regulation, it can’t be done without further loss of life,” said William Voss, chief executive officer of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has made flying safer.  By combing through airplane accidents to find out what went wrong.  Sadly, it took loss of life to advance safety.  Because a plane that didn’t have an accident was safe.  And didn’t need any safety advancements.

A cost-benefit analysis is at the heart of a dispute between the FAA and unions representing pilots of cargo carriers such as FedEx Corp. (FDX) and United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS) over the scope of the new regulations, which take effect in January 2014.

The rules will limit the hours pilots fly, taking into account the time of day they work as well as the number of takeoffs and landings. First proposed by the FAA for both passenger and cargo pilots, the rules were trimmed to exempt freight carriers following review by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs…

Regulators concluded that the benefit of improving pilot safety at freight airlines wasn’t worth the expense. Because costs of crashes are based primarily on the value of lost lives and freight airlines don’t carry passengers, losses are inherently smaller in cargo accidents under the formula…

Freight carriers object to the new fatigue rules because the costs are at least 10 times the benefits based on FAA data, according to Stephen Alterman, president of the Washington-based Cargo Airline Association. Cargo-airline pilots fly an average of 30 hours a month, compared with 50 hours a month for passenger-airline pilots, he said.

Passenger airline pilots fly more because passenger aircraft fly more.  A commuter route may make 3-4 round-trips in one day.  The freight aircraft (such as FedEx and UPS) typically fly overnight.  Trucks make their deliveries to the airports at the end of the day.  The planes fly through the night so trucks at the destination city can deliver those packages the following morning.

Automatic flight controls have made flying safer.  But they have also contributed to pilot fatigue.  As being a pilot is more about monitoring systems than manually flying a plane.  Which gets boring.  There was a recent incident where both pilots nodded off for a few minutes and overflew their destination.  There was another incident where the pilots were getting conflicting warnings (an over-speed warning and a stall warning at the same time due to a plugged airspeed sensor) causing great confusion.  They focused their attention on the automatic flight systems a little too long and stalled the aircraft.  These are good pilots.  Highly skilled.  But sitting still and monitoring flight systems without having to do any flying can dull the reflexes.  Not much.  But enough.

These incidents are the exception to the rule.  The rule being that flying has never been safer.  And there is no other form of transportation as safe as flying.

The risk of a fatal accident in commercial aviation has been reduced to 1 out of 49 million flights over the past five years, from 1 in 1.7 million flights from 1975 to 1989, according to NTSB records. That’s a 96 percent decrease in risk…

Safety has improved since the late 1990s as the airline industry and regulators learned to analyze massive quantities of data for anomalies and voluntarily made changes to head off potential problems, according to Thomas Hendricks, Airlines for America’s senior vice president for operations and safety.

“We go out and proactively address an issue prior to waiting for an incident to occur,” Hendricks said in an interview. “The information technology revolution has made this possible.”

Airlines cannot get people to fly their planes if they have a reputation for being unsafe.  That’s why airlines are analyzing data and voluntarily making changes if it will make them safer.  For having a reputation that your planes don’t fall out of the sky is a good thing.  Making new regulations almost moot.  Except, perhaps, in one area.  Letting pilots fly again.  They want to.  They can fly extremely well.  And should.  For the best way of bringing an aircraft in trouble safely back down is having a highly skilled pilot at the flight controls.  Which we have.  But we’re just not letting them fly much these days.

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