Aircraft Accidents and Grandmother’s House

Ah, we all know the words, “Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go.  The horse knows the way …”  Lydia Maria Child (1802 – 1880) wrote those lyrics in 1844.  It was originally written as Grandfather’s – not Grandmother’s – house, but I guess the thought of crotchety old Grandfathers like me do not allude to fun and good food, like Grandmother does.

Going to the grandparents’ house for youngsters in the mid-1800s was as simple as getting the horse attached to the sleigh, climbing in and you’re on your way; the only hardships were the wind, an occasional smack with a tree branch or Old Glue throwing a horseshoe.  It was a different experience from the treks I experienced in the 1960s; we’d load up in Dad’s old Ford Falcon, jump on the Cross Island Parkway and fifteen miles later I’m elbow deep in lasagna.  Today, trips to Grandma’s are unlike everything before; we are now a worldwide society; families are spread out over many states and countries.  Air travel has never been so important.

In my younger days, the Commercial Industry still had Regulation; it really was a different world.  In October 1978, President Carter signed into law, Public Law (PL) 95-504, commonly known as the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978.  The purpose of PL 95-504 was: “To amend the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, to encourage, develop, and attain an air transportation system which relies on competitive market forces to determine the quality, variety, and price of air services, and for other purposes.”

Among many things, the Act “encouraged air service at major urban areas through secondary or satellite airports”; it prevented deceptive, unfair or anti-competitive practices, e.g. excessive market domination or monopolies; or the unfair practice of increasing prices or tampering with service.  Many feel that this was the decline of air commerce; that the Pan Am Clipper glory days of flying were reduced to a metropolitan/public transportation bus mentality.  Indeed, I remember when flying was a privilege; people dressed up, enjoyed onboard meals in coach and wider seats.  Flying was fun; it was exciting, a bragging right at school; it was a world I remember fondly.

But those days were also full of airlines too poorly managed to survive.  The gate was flung open to the free market, allowing upstarts to prove they had a better product for the traveling public or be crushed underfoot in an eat-or-be-eaten arena.  Many legacy carriers were happy to remain to feed at the regulated trough with heavy subsidies since the Chicago Convention of 1944.  They were confident that passengers would show up and pay their prices.  Suddenly these airlines stumbled in the presence of competition and, like the dinosaurs of old, gradually died out with a whimper or were absorbed by smarter competitors.

But deregulation not only encouraged self-preservation for the airlines, it spawned a surge in technology improvements.  Cries for cost-savings and aircraft accidents played important roles in bringing to light major aircraft shortcomings, e.g. metal versus composites; practices demanding upgrades, e.g. wind shear detection and training; and smarter aircraft that could operate with fewer pilots, less fuel and more reliable repairs.

Having made the leap – as an aircraft mechanic – from analog technology to digital, from the B727 and DC10 to the MD11 and the modified A300, the technology is incredible.  I am not a supporter of full technology reliance – I’ve often spoken out about the yet unseen dangers of this dependence – but one must give credit where credit is due.  The advances in technology would have been delayed in a world before deregulation, simply because the market wouldn’t have demanded the air carrier industry invest in it.

As a result, companies like Boeing, Airbus, Pratt & Whitney, Embraer, Rolls Royce, Cessna, et al, wouldn’t have been compelled to design fuel efficient engines, lighter composite materials, fly-by-wire, if not for the market’s cries for help.  As competition squeezed less adaptable carriers from the industry, the survivors searched for ways to remain viable in a market that kept everyone on their toes.  Today, the average age of airliners is half the age of the old-time  legacy carriers.  While older aircraft are destined for cargo operators, even old hulls, e.g. the DC-10, receive new life in hardware and software modifications that turned it into the MD-10.

The market also allowed for new players: the regional airlines, contract supporters of the majors into smaller markets.  Looking at the latest estimates for departing passengers out of the top ten busiest domestic airports, the regional carrier has contributed to the large numbers of grandchildren heading to Grandma’s house this Thanksgiving.  Phoenix comes in at number ten with an estimated 613,443 scheduled departing passengers, while Atlanta comes in number one with an estimated 1,382,846 scheduled departing passengers.

But, with each addition to the flight schedule comes a greater demand for safety.  Issues including crew rest, maintenance gripes, weather, over-booking, delays, even traffic to and from the airport; each contribute to the safe movement of people to Grandma’s home and back again.  Every one of these factors have contributed to major accidents; they were the first tile to topple, causing the domino effect leading to disaster, e.g. rushing to meet a schedule, bypassing technical glitches, skipping training, staging aircraft, or overloading the aircraft out of balance.  Safety is easy to overlook; it becomes a hindrance when managers are breathing down your neck and tensions are high.  Yet, it is the most important subject; it does not forgive; it has no empathy, even for the innocent.

Holiday travel has changed since the days of Lydia Maria Child; her delightful poem is a call back to a simpler time, where Grandma was a fun ride away.  No sleigh rides through the woods, or even car drives to South Ozone Park; these are the prices we pay for a larger world and advanced technologies.  But we have to remember that, even though the horse knew the way to carry the sleigh, the driver kept an eye on the route.  Even then we knew enough to monitor the technology.

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