Weighing air safety and its costs: an interview with FAA chief

When Boeing suggested reducing the number of exits on new 747 jumbo jets from 10 to eight, the move seemed destined for easy approval. The airlines were keen to see it happen - fewer exits mean less weight, easier maintenance, and more seats per plane. The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) regional office in Seattle gave its tentative go-ahead. But Donald Engen, head of the agency, said no.

``Others may be driven by the profit motive,'' says Mr. Engen. ``But I'm driven by the safety motive.''

Engen, appointed in 1984, has his work cut out for him. Half of all air travel in the world is done within the United States, some 200 million flights annually; and the skies grow more crowded each year.

Highly publicized accidents, such as the midair collision over Cerritos, Calif., in late August, underscore the need for continued vigilance. The agency must guard against an array of safety hazards, such as the fracture found in the wing of a Delta jetliner recently that led to the call for inspections of nearly 100 Lockheed L-1011s.

``The most pressing need today is to get all pilots fully compliant with federal air regulations, to ensure that they are operating in their own best interest,'' says Engen, a retired Navy vice-admiral and former test pilot who previously served on the National Transportation Safety Board.

The FAA recently announced plans to tighten controls around the nation's busiest airports and crack down on pilots who violate regulations.

But these are just some elements in an ongoing safety offensive, says the affable administrator. Other elements include upgrading air traffic control technology, training additional air traffic controllers (Engen expects to have 15,000 fully trained by next September), and improving central oversight of operations.

For instance, the techniques for reporting near midair collisions were changed several years ago to get a more accurate picture of what was happening. As a result, Engen says, the number of reported near-collisions went up by 188 in 1985 (to 777) and has increased again in the first half of this year. ``Some have misinterpreted that to mean that the system is less safe; but that's not true. It's just better reporting.''

Critics of the FAA say the agency relies too heavily on ``legalistic solutions'' to safety problems, slowly hammering out rules and regulations while dragging its feet on applying cutting-edge technologies. In many cases, the agency's response to recognized safety problems has been remarkably slow.

A classic example is the problem of fire hazards on airliners. Some materials used for interior trim and upholstery melt and generate toxic fumes and heavy smoke during fires. The FAA has been talking about the problem since a 1961 crash in Denver. But only recently have modest measures - such as requiring smoke detectors in lavatories and fire-resistant seat cushions - begun to make their way into the rule books.

Engen admits that his quest for safety is hindered by ``bureaucratic inertia'' within the agency. ``You have to rededicate yourself almost monthly to getting things moving,'' he says. ``And, even then, there's still delay.''

For example, the FAA has worked for decades on controversial electronic technology that would be installed on airplanes and help warn pilots of the approach of other aircraft.

Finally, last November, Engen issued the order: Certify the technology within six months and move it into the marketplace. (Although many experts criticize them, FAA-approved collision avoidance devices are expected to be used in a limited number of Piedmont, Northwest Orient, and United planes by next year.)

Another area of concern to Engen is the design of seats on commercial airliners. Engen plans to push for more stringent design standards and shoulder strap restraints during the next year.

Despite such initiatives, experts say the biggest strides in air safety usually follow serious accidents. Engen counters this by pointing out that his agency is making steady gains in safety all the time - but that these are usually overlooked by the public. ``Only when there's an accident,'' he says, ``is everyone's attention suddenly galvanized.''

The key is to profit from mistakes, Engen says. Indeed, he considers this an essential feature of aviation history. For example, it was a wreck near Kansas City in 1935 that prompted the creation of the National Transportation Safety Board. Even the creation of the FAA was sparked by disaster: a series of midair collisions in the late 1950s.

Aviation experts, including Engen, emphasize the safety of air travel. Statistics show that, based on fatalities-per-passenger-mile, air travel is still remarkably safe - even safer than driving a car.

Aviation, Engen says, remains an elaborate system of compromises in which safety must be weighed against economic necessities. ``You've got to strive for safety improvements,'' he says. But, in the end, it has ``to be economically viable, otherwise it defeats the purpose.''

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