How air safety may be linked to airline ledgers

Most airplane crash investigations focus on the physical aspects of what went wrong with the plane and why.

But some aviation safety experts insist that no investigation in the 1980s can afford to ignore airline financial problems.

These, they claim, can have a subtle but significant effect in adding to pressure on pilots to hew closely to schedules, regardless of weather. The experts say that pressure on airlines to make economic shortcuts can jeopardize passenger safety. And both the recession and Washington's recent efforts to deregulate air fares and routes have heightened airline financial difficulties.

''I'm convinced that if you subject airlines to economic pressures, there is going to be more chance-taking,'' says Chuck Miller, an independent aviation safety consultant and former safety official with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

John Galipault, president of the Aviation Safety Institute, says there is evidence, such as the layoff of a number of airline mechanics, that deregulation pressures may directly affect airline upkeep. His Ohio organization, which welcomes the anonymous reporting of aviation hazards by both controllers and pilots, says that one pilot recently reported taking off with a plane that had more than a dozen deferred maintenance needs. Mr. Galipault says he has also had reports that one airline fleet has 350 maintenance items on ''hold,'' involving more than 30 aircraft.

The playback quality on cockpit sound and flight data recorders in the recent 727 crash in Kenner, La., has been so poor that the NTSB has asked the FAA to require airlines to install more sophisicated equipment in all planes within the next two years. The NTSB has been having budget problems as well and may have to defer hearings on the crash until its new fiscal year Oct. 1.

FAA safety standards have not been relaxed in Washington's general ease-up on regulations. But that does not mean there is no temptation to cut corners, some safety experts say. They cite the NTSB's own study of commuter airline safety as an example.

While the board concluded that any compromising of safety to raise profits is rare among commuter lines, it declared that there is a direct relationship between the airlines' financial status and safety.

In a similar vein, the NTSB concluded in its investigation of the Eastern Air Lines crash of a Boeing 727 at Kennedy Airport in 1975 that logic should have dictated a runway change. They concluded that a move was not considered because ''it would have further increased traffic delays and an already heavy workload.''

Pilots themselves admit that pressures can be strong. In testimony on Capitol Hill in March, Capt. J. J. O'Donnell, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, urged the FAA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to look more deeply into the process of cockpit decisionmaking:

''Some pilots might be inclined to break off an approach and go to an alternate airport instead of trying to land on a short, slippery runway in minimal weather if they knew that other pilots were doing the same and that they wouldn't be called in by the airline management to explain why they cost the company money by diverting the flight . . . . ''

When Washington began to deregulate fares and routes a few years ago, many new airlines, such as Air Florida, sprang up. They grew rapidly. Aviation safety consultant Miller says he is ''personally convinced'' that the crash of the Air Florida plane in Washington in January is largely attributable to ''deregulation.''

He claims the credentials and experience of the pilots involved in that mishap were significantly less than those on the payroll of most established airlines.

Similarly, the Aviation Consumer Action Project (ACAP) questions whether the FAA has managed to keep watch over the expansion of such airlines - to be sure that safety is not compromised in the course of swift growth.

The NTSB report on the Air Florida crash is expected to be issued before the end of the summer. ACAP director Matthew Finucane argues that the report will be incomplete if it does not include an attempt to establish ''plausible reasons'' for the several apparent errors in crew judgment, such as the failure to turn on the engine's anti-icing system and to return to the gate for a more up-to-date de-icing of the plane's wings and body.

''The board really needs to look at the human factors,'' he says. ''I think it should take testimony from pilots . . . and ask them what the pressures are to take off and what the practical consequences would be of a refusal to keep a schedule in bad weather . . . It's apparent from the last three (weather-related) aviation accidents that there is a huge economic engine in the air traffic system that seems to want to go on of its own accord even in bad weather.''

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