Torqued: Where is the FAA’s “Diversion” Theory When the Aviation Industry Needs it Most?

 - February 1, 2021, 8:35 AM

This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.


As I write, waiting for a major snowstorm to hit the Northeast and maybe keep people home long enough to help slow the spread of this viral scourge, an approved Covid-19 vaccine is being rolled out to hospital workers and nursing home residents across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Soon there may be multiple vaccines available and the pandemic’s destruction of the health and economic lives of millions will—in the near future—come to an end. 

I hope that by the time you read this, tens of millions will have received their two doses of vaccines and millions more will be ready for delivery. Maybe by then, a one-shot vaccine will also be available. I will be lining up for a vaccine as soon as it is available to me.  I hope everyone in the aviation industry does so as well and encourages their families and friends to do the same. There’s no saving this industry until we free ourselves from the tentacles of this pandemic, and getting vaccinated will be the quickest route even if the federal government finally comes through with another bailout.

But until the day comes that the vaccine’s use approaches herd immunity—approximately 70 to 80 percent of the population according to experts—is there more that the FAA could do to reassure the traveling public of the safety of airline travel, with, of course, the proper precautions, as compared to driving? I think there is. And this is not to suggest that frivolous travel should be undertaken with cases surging. But for travel that is essential, whether for work or personal reasons, is driving really better than flying when all risks are considered? Even if driving alone or with immediate household members is safer from the perspective of catching the virus, is it safer when all risks of travel accidents are considered?

As I read recommendation after recommendation from government experts and epidemiologists across the country that it's safer to travel by car than fly, I have to wonder why is the risk comparison only the risk of contracting the virus and not all the risks attendant to other modes of transportation, especially driving? The FAA’s silence on this issue not only impacts the aviation industry, it has been particularly galling to safety experts—like myself—who have had to deal with the FAA’s so-called “diversion” theory for years. When it suited the FAA’s refusal to act to protect our youngest passengers—in other words, refusing to mandate safe seats for every passenger and eliminating lap children, the FAA’s rule that allows children under the age of two to fly on a parent’s lap instead of restrained like every other passenger and coffee pot on an aircraft—the FAA handily trotted out its diversion theory.

So, what is the FAA’s diversion theory and how was it used to push back on rules requiring infant child restraints? As every safety expert has long known, and even the FAA recognizes on its own website, the safest place for a child on an airplane is in a government-approved child safety restraint system, not your lap. The FAA also advises on its website: “Your arms aren't capable of holding your child securely, especially during unexpected turbulence.” Children have been injured and some have died from being unrestrained. But while the FAA will advise against flying with a lap child, it has steadfastly refused to issue regulations requiring children to be appropriately restrained. 

More than two decades ago there was a significant push to adopt such regulations, after the July 2, 1994 crash of a USAir DC-9 on landing at Charlotte, North Carolina. The flight experienced a significant microburst on landing and crashed just short of the runway. In that crash, two mothers holding their daughters on their laps survived the accident relatively unscathed. That was not the case for the two lap children: one died of her injuries and the other was severely injured because the mothers were unable to hold onto them when the aircraft gyrated wildly as it crash-landed. That accident made kids' seats a personal crusade of mine. As the lead accident investigator for USAir’s IAM union, I was on the scene when a fireman brought out the charred remains of the infant whose mother’s arms could not restrain.

But the FAA was intransigent when it came to issuing a rule to mandate safety restraints. Instead, it came up with this theory as to why such regulations would do more harm than good. So was born the “diversion” theory. That theory has been updated as recently as 2012 and is enshrined on the Department of Transportation’s website. According to the FAA’s analysis, “requiring the use of [child restraint systems for children under the age of two] would increase total transportation deaths by 72 over 10 years and by 115 deaths over 15 years.” This is because the FAA assumes that the increased cost of buying a ticket for the infant would result in a substantial number of parents deciding to drive to their destination or pick a destination accessible by car. 

The FAA, therefore, concludes: “The Nation’s highway system, which would capture virtually all of the family travel that price might divert from the air transport system, is less safe than the air carrier system. This remains true despite recent improvements in highway fatal accident rates. Consequently, the diverted travel would impose higher risks on the entire travel party and, to some degree, on other drivers. The net effect would be an increase in total transportation deaths.”

While the FAA’s diversion theory seemed to me to be a pretext to avoid implementing a kid seat rule the airline industry did not want, in the context of saving the industry in the midst of a pandemic, the FAA might want to reconsider its silence. If fear of catching the virus is diverting travelers to motor vehicles, as reports seem to indicate, why isn’t the FAA or DOT highlighting the risks of driving over flying? At least someone in the government should be assessing the total risk of the mode of transportation chosen, the likelihood of catching Covid-19, and the likelihood of serious injuries or death. Travelers need to know and the aviation industry could sure use the help if the total risk is actually lower flying than driving.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN.
John Goglia is a safety ­consultant. He welcomes your e-mails at: gogliaj@yahoo.com