Fifteen months after ValuJet Flight 592 plunged into the Everglades killing all on board, its impact on perceptions of airline safety is still being felt.
Air travelers are demanding more information about the safety performance of commercial airlines - and they're starting to get it.
"Price is still paramount, but agents get more and more questions about safety," says John Hawks, president of the Lexington, Ky.-based Association of Retail Travel Agents.
The ValuJet crash and the crash last summer of TWA Flight 800 have focused public attention on airline safety as never before. And government actions regarding those accidents continue to attract intense scrutiny.
In Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board presented its final conclusions Aug. 19 about what caused the 1996 ValuJet crash. The NTSB says the accident was caused by the combustion of oxygen canisters in the cargo hold; it has already recommended to the Federal Aviation Administration how to prevent future accidents of this kind. But the hearings highlighted the fact that the FAA still has not required airlines to install fire-detection and suppression devices in cargo holds, although it has proposed rules to do so.
While progress may be slow on this front, travelers now have more information available on airline safety than in years past.
Since the ValuJet crash, the FAA has posted a wealth of statistical data on airlines on its Internet site (www.faa.gov). It includes NTSB's accident/incident database; the FAA's incident database; statistical data about airlines' departures, hours flown, and miles flown; near midair collisions; and the NTSB's recommendations to the FAA and the FAA's responses. The FAA, however, does not give a safety ranking of airlines.
But the Air Travelers Association, a recently formed Washington lobby group for airline passengers, now issues an Airline Safety Report Card. It ranks 260 airlines worldwide, including 29 US airlines. The safety ranking is available on the Internet (www.1800airsafe.com) or by calling 800-AIR-SAFE.
THE Report Card includes airline-safety ratings of 0 to 100 for the fatal accident history, with corresponding grades of A to F for the passenger airlines. All US-owned airlines received an A, except for ValuJet, which received an F.
"While flying is generally very safe, there are a few bad apples in the airline industry," says David Stempler, president of the association. "Although past performance is not a predictor of future performance, it is a good bet that airlines that have done well over the last 10 years will continue to do so."
But Arnold Barnett, a statistics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, says the ratings are skewed and may not be good indicators of future performance.
The fatal accidents category, for example, gives the same weight to an accident in which one person dies as it does to a crash that kills 100 people.
The grading system also isn't revealing enough, he says. The Report Card uses an index of one accident per 1 million flights as the criterion for receiving an A. Delta Airlines, for example, got an A for having two fatal accidents for 9,372,000 flights in the 10-year-period. US Airways had six fatal accidents for 9,496,000 flights and also received an A.
The report would be more accurate, Dr. Barnett says, if accident rates and number of flights were broken down into quarterly, instead of annual, periods. "It would be more reasonable to treat these differences as transient fluctuations rather than as serious forecasts about the future," Barnett says.
Still, Barnett maintains that flying is the safest method of transportation. According to his latest risk calculations, using data from August 1987 to August 1997, "If a person took a flight every single day, including Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, he could go 21,000 years before succumbing to a fatal crash," Barnett says.