Safety wishes for the new year

 - December 29, 2010, 5:42 AM

A new year brings new wishes for aviation safety. Or, in some cases, a ­renewal of old wishes from years past. It’s no small feat to strive to constantly improve an already enviable aviation safety record. But strive we must if we are to eliminate potential safety problems that in the right combination could bring down an aircraft or otherwise come together to cause injury or loss of life. While eliminating all accidents may well be impossible, the goal of zero accidents remains a goal worth pursuing.

Bird Strikes
The media splash surrounding the miracle on the Hudson unfortunately did not translate into affirmative steps to tackle the problem of bird strikes. Other than some local efforts by the Port Authority of NY & NJ to kill Canada goose feeding grounds in parks around their airports, the FAA and NTSB response to the near-catastrophe has been muted. Wildlife control is important, albeit not enough. It is a piece of the solution. And while a number of other airports have taken wildlife control seriously, there has been no effective national effort at airports across the country. If the FAA is unwilling to mount a national campaign, it would seem the NTSB could use its bully pulpit to support this effort.

Here’s wishing that it doesn’t take another headline, one with the word tragedy in it, to finally get something done to improve radar detection of birds and to improve the ability of engines to repel them.

Kid Seats
If every CEO and safety ­regulator ­really knew how it felt to carry the ­lifeless body of an infant or toddler from the wreckage of an aircraft, maybe ­something could get done about ­mandating proper restraints for ­children under the age of two.

Particularly devastating is the death of a child in a survivable accident because he was being held in a parent’s arms instead of being restrained in a child seat. Maybe knowing how heart-rending it is would finally pierce the cold-blooded cost-benefit analyses that decree that only the most vulnerable on our airplanes ride unprotected and unsecured. This is not wishful thinking on my part. I have seen other corporate policies drastically change when an airline CEO came to the scene of an accident and saw for himself the impact of the accident on victims’ families. (By “scene of an accident” I mean the still-smoldering wreckage, not a nearby hotel room where press conferences are usually held.)

While I am heartened that the NTSB has highlighted the importance of this issue, I am chagrined by the FAA’s nonsensical response–that while it encourages the use of child restraints, it will not mandate them because it would encourage families to forgo air travel in favor of driving, which it considers a less safe mode of transportation. Nowhere does the agency cite any statistics for its implied claim that properly restrained children in cars are less safe than unrestrained in aircraft.
(Interesting that the government has made no such safety arguments in response to the TSA’s intrusive security pat-downs, which have surely driven more people into their cars–the last straw of indignities passengers are willing to tolerate to travel, especially for distances of less than 500 miles.)

While my wish for the major airlines to do something voluntarily to require child restraints in the face of government unwillingness to regulate remains, I am most hopeful that business aircraft owners and Part 135 operators who carry infants and toddlers will take the lead. They have a singular opportunity to show that on the issue of child safety, they are a step ahead of the majors and voluntarily require that children under the age of two who fly on their aircraft be properly restrained.

Maintenance Manual Procedures
Here is a perennial wish of mine: that maintenance’s dirty little secret be exposed for the safety hazard it presents and that something be done about it. I am referring to the long-known but oft-ignored problem of mechanics regularly not following a manufacturer’s maintenance manual procedures. Mechanics’ reasons for not following the manual are many–from the manual being incorrect (and no one taking the time to correct it), to their untested belief that their way is better, to “my manager told me” I had to do it a different way. I’ve heard these excuses in accident investigations from ValuJet in the Everglades to Air Midwest in Charlotte to Colgan in Hyannis.

And how do I know that the failure to follow maintenance procedures is a problem? Accident investigations over the years have revealed the deadly ­consequences of mechanics’ failure to follow procedures. Repair station auditors frequently observe this in their findings. I, myself, have observed this problem over and over–before, while and since I was on the NTSB. While this weakness is commonly known in maintenance circles, precious little ­public mention is made of the problem and little is done to address it.

Here’s wishing that a new year brings new attention to these ­perennial problems. n
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN.