How much safety is enough? Balancing the risks and costs. Critics say the FAA reacts only after mishaps point to problems
Washington — ``Daily courage.'' That's what National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman James E. Burnett Jr. insists is required of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the agency responsible for the safe operation and flow of the nation's air traffic.
Mr. Burnett says the FAA needs courage to keep its eye on the public interest and to stand up to airline industry pressures against safety regulations and traffic cutbacks. The airlines often contend that such limits to free enterprise are too costly.
A case in point is the longstanding push by the NTSB and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) to get the FAA to require more passenger protection from the smoke and fire that often follow an air crash.
They pressed for more fire-resistant cabin materials, improved breathing equipment for the crew to use during evacuations, and floor-level lights so passengers caught in smoke could still find their way to an exit.
For many years the FAA did little in response. Of the NTSB's repeated push for floor-level lights, former board chairman James King used to say that cave men knew that smoke rises but the FAA had yet to discover it.
The agency has traditionally adopted rules in a slow, bureaucratic fashion. Sixteen years passed, for instance, between the FAA's first endorsement of shoulder harnesses as a worthy addition to seat belts in small airplanes and the actual announcement of a proposed rule last fall.
``We tend to study things to death,'' observes Donald Engen, the FAA administrator since April 1984. ``I don't believe in sitting around on your hands, and it sometimes drives me to distraction waiting for things to happen.''
It was the 1983 lavatory fire in an Air Canada jet which once again threw the spotlight on the inadequacy of the FAA's existing fire and smoke safety rules. Several of the jet's passengers were killed, not by the impact of the forced landing in Cincinnati but by toxic fumes and smoke from burning seats and cabin walls.
Within the last year the FAA has issued several proposed fire safety rules. These include smoke detectors in lavatories, automatic fire extinguishers in trash bins, low-level emergency exit lights, better crew breathing equipment, and more-fire-resistant cabin materials including seat cushions.
``For the last 20 years we've heard lots [from the aviation industry] about the lack of cost effectiveness of making interior materials more fire resistant,'' observes ALPA president Henry Duffy. ``Unfortunately it took an airplane burning up in Cincinnati to get the results we should have had long ago.'' Indeed, advocates of stronger FAA safety measures say it is all too often a crash that finally ushers in new rules.
And even new rules, they say, are worth little without tough FAA enforcement. Two months ago the Air Transport Association, which represents most major carriers, said the floor lighting deadline of November 1986 and the seat-cushion deadline of November 1987 will be difficult to meet.
Christopher Witkowski, director of Ralph Nader's Aviation Consumer Action Project, counters that the deadlines give industry ``more than enough time.''
Also concerned, the House Aviation Subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D) of California, and his colleague, Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt (R) of Arkansas, immediately wrote to both Administrator Engen and Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole.
``I said, `Look, don't even consider granting any waivers or saying, yes, we agree the two-year date [on cushions] may be unreasonable and we'll stretch it out,' '' recalls Representative Mineta. He says he has received assurances that the FAA intends to hold to the dates.
Air Transport Association officials insist the reasons for their objections to such rules are often broader than they get credit for.
``One needs to consider cost,'' observes ATA vice- president Daniel Henkin. ``We also have an obligation to point out where proposed rules have shortcomings. We were not enthusiastic about antimisting kerosene, for instance, and we said so.'' (Recently the FAA decided not to require United States airlines to use the antimisting fuel, which proved unsuccessful in a test of its ability to control postcrash fires.)
Critics of the FAA say the agency is slowest and most reluctant in the area of rapidly changing technology. They say the FAA wants perfection and is unwilling to take interim steps. ``They won't do what they can when they can,'' says independent safety consultant Charles O. Miller.
That charge was reiterated after the crash in August of a Delta jet during a landing at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Wind shear, a sudden shift of wind direction or speed, is considered a contributing factor as it has been in 16 other airline crashes since 1970. A low-level wind-shear alert system (LLWAS) at the Texas airport did not warn controllers of the problem in time.
After the Delta crash, air-safety experts once again urged rapid installation of a new doppler weather radar system at major US airports. Most experts feel that doppler radar is a much more effective though admittedly far more expensive means of detecting wind shear conditions.
But FAA officials insist that, as easy as it may look from the outside, the technology isn't ready. ``It's far from being something that's on the shelf -- the state of the art just isn't there,'' says FAA Deputy Administrator Richard H. Jones.
The computer software necessary to automatically detect and interpret wind-shear signals for controllers is still undeveloped, explains David R. Kelley, director of the operational factors division of the NTSB.
Money problems are also part of the story. The FAA had planned to start contracting for some of the sophisticated radars in fiscal 1986. But Federal Office of Management and Budget officials requested that the FAA first see if any off-the-shelf radars were available. The report detailing FAA's negative answer is now close to completion. Some aviation-safety experts say the OMB request delayed progress by at least six months.
While the doppler terminal weather radar system has been tested at both the Denver and Memphis airports, further installation of the system at major airports is not expected until the early 1990s. Fourth of five articles. Next: an interview with FAA administrator Donald D. Engen.