AIN Blog: Torqued: Downplaying Risk Creates Its Own Risk

 - November 4, 2011, 11:57 AM

The Italian justice system has been in the news lately–nonstop on some cable stations, it seems. While most of the media attention has been focused on the fate of a Seattle college student’s junior-year-abroad gone terribly wrong, there is another case that is shocking scientific circles around the world. If you haven’t heard, six seismologists in Italy are being criminally prosecuted–charged with manslaughter!–for downplaying the risk of a devastating earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, in April 2009. Some 300 people died when the town’s buildings–many built contrary to supposedly mandatory building codes–collapsed. Notwithstanding the fact that many of the buildings collapsed because they were improperly built for an earthquake-prone region, the seismologists, according to the prosecution, should have warned L’Aquila’s residents because there were indicators of a major earthquake in the preceding months. (So far, no word on prosecutions of those responsible for fraudulently ignoring building codes, but that’s a different article.)

While the Italian case has raised–appropriately, I believe–the ire of many scientists around the globe for many reasons, including the very real difficulty of predicting with any kind of precision when a major earthquake would actually strike, it also raises the question of when is a government obligated to communicate risks to the public? Is it ever okay to downplay risk? Is fear of creating unnecessary panic, apparently the concern of the Italian seismologists, reason to minimize risk?

Notwithstanding the novelty of the Italian criminal prosecutions, there is nothing novel about government leaders downplaying risk, or just plain failing to inform the public that any risk exists. I can still remember the shock on the faces of all the NTSB investigators when at the site of the deadly ValuJet crash in the Everglades in 1996 and only days after that terrible accident, the then-Secretary of Transportation, flanked by the FAA Administrator, announced that ValuJet was a safe airline and that the public could fly on it without worries.

The DOT Secretary’s pronouncements seemed bizarrely premature and optimistic when the causes of the accident had not even begun to emerge from the murky depths of the great swamp that swallowed up much of the wreckage of the ill-fated Flight 592. Either our government leaders were inexplicably unaware of the significant problems the airline had experienced since its certification, or they were intentionally minimizing the risk for reasons I cannot fathom. Was it to protect ValuJet or the government agency that had certified it? Or both? In any event, a few weeks after the government’s reassuring pronouncements, the FAA shut down ValuJet for a pattern of safety violations. Fortunately, no one was killed or injured flying ValuJet in those interim weeks after passengers were assured of the airline’s “safety.”

As confusing as that situation was, when it comes to downplaying risk, few can top the reassuring words of the EPA Administrator in office on 9/11. Many of you probably remember the controversy that resulted when the truth came out that she intentionally minimized the risk of long-term health impacts from the air quality at Ground Zero in the days and months after 9/11. A lot of first responders and others selflessly drawn to the smoldering pile to search for survivors and then bodies are suffering the health effects of that air quality 10 years later. How many fewer casualties would there have been if the risks had not been willfully downplayed? Would some people have worn better protective gear or not gone at all? Did they deserve to at least make a conscious choice about the risks they were taking?

Fuel Contamination?

Downplaying risk, or not discussing it at all, has been on my mind lately as I search for information on word that has been traveling in fuel circles of concerns about aviation fuel contamination. First, a Cathay Pacific Airbus A330 makes an emergency landing April 13, 2010, at Hong Kong International Airport after an in-flight engine failure; fear of fire on landing results in deployment of the emergency slides, with 57 of 300 passengers injured. The primary suspect in the engine failure: fuel contamination. Of even greater concern, but with relatively little coverage in the U.S., this past May air traffic in and out of Israel ground to a complete halt for 12 hours. The reason: fuel contamination. That’s an awfully long time for a country’s aviation system to grind to a halt.

There’s no indication that these fuel contamination incidents are related, but there’s also no information that they are not, or that similar breakdowns in quality standards did not lead to both situations. Engine manufacturers I have spoken with are clearly concerned, as are fuel companies, about, first, preventing the contamination of fuel and then, second, preventing any fuel that is contaminated from being pumped into aircraft. I believe anyone concerned about aviation safety would want to know what’s being done; how are the incidents being addressed? What’s the risk of bad fuel getting into an aircraft and how can it be mitigated? Outside a very small group of aircraft and engine manufacturers, petroleum producers and the FAA, not much is known.

Why has information on what may be an emerging threat been limited to this small circle of aviation industry insiders? As we all know, tainted fuel can and has brought down aircraft over the years. Surely more than just manufacturers are interested in knowing the latest, most-up-to-date information.  Why hasn’t the FAA addressed these concerns to the wider aviation community?

Unfortunately, in my experience, all too often the FAA does not want emerging risks discussed outside a small body of insiders. Maybe they don’t want the spotlight placed on a problem before they know all the answers. Or maybe they don’t value the input of those outside their small circle of expertise. But whatever the reasons, I believe safety benefits when information, including emerging risk information, is disseminated to the larger aviation community.