CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's probably worth asking: Is air travel safer now?
Over the past month, four major U.S. carriers canceled hundreds of flights to conduct sudden inspections, costing millions of dollars and inconveniencing thousands of passengers. Plentiful media coverage followed, and last week the House Transportation Committee heard Federal Aviation Administration whistleblowers detail their struggles to draw attention to improper maintenance procedures at Southwest (LUV - Get Report).
As committee chairman Rep. James Oberstar (D., Minn.) said repeatedly, the committee's very public interest in the FAA's failed oversight of Southwest prompted inspections at AMR's (AMR) American, Delta (DAL - Get Report) and UAL's (UAUA) United.
Airline safety is a complex and emotional topic, but it is difficult to conclude that the disruptions at the latter three carriers were justified by imminent safety concerns. Instead, the events were partially theater, required by a perceived need at a time of intense scrutiny to clearly demonstrate a commitment to safety.In the case of United, for instance, the carrier grounded its fleet of 52 Boeing 777s because it believed it had failed to direct its maintenance workers to test a component of the cargo fire-suppression system. A further review indicated that the test was not initially included in the Boeing maintenance manual, although it was included in a later revision. Still, United acted immediately to perform the tests. "We all share in the industry's responsibility for safety and there is no obligation that we take more seriously," said Pete McDonald, chief operating officer, in a prepared statement. Worth noting is that commercial aviation in the U.S. is probably the safest transportation system in the history of the world. Occasional skirmishes around the margins are no doubt helpful in keeping it that way. But sudden flight disruptions, while they inconvenience travelers, do not necessarily enhance safety. As for the hearing, its value was in revealing that, sadly, the FAA remains an agency where dissenting views on safety are not welcome. Perhaps in the aftermath of recent events, they will be.