Is there a link between air safety and the intense competition among airlines spurred by the lifting of federal economic controls? Many industry and government officials say the answer is an emphatic ``no.'' And they cite figures showing that both accident rates and fatalities have generally gone down since deregulation began in 1978.
``I've just looked at the statistics and there's no way you can figure them and not conclude that the situation is better,'' says Cornell University economist Alfred Kahn, a former chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board. ``It's not necessarily because of deregulation. But every statistic is down.''
Still, some longtime aviation watchers see a strong and growing -- if not yet measurable -- connection between trying to squeeze the most out of every dollar and the safety of the nation's airways.
``The greater the competition, the more airlines are encouraged -- they feel compelled -- to cut corners on safety, and the greater the risk,'' says University of Pittsburgh regulatory expert Frederick Thayer.
``I feel very strongly on this subject. It's something we've got to look at,'' agrees Chuck Miller, head of Safety Systems Inc. and former aviation safety bureau director of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
Such varied groups as Ohio-based Aviation Safety Institute and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) have voiced concern about the dollar-safety link since Congress first began talking about deregulation in the 1970s.
ALPA spokesman John Mazor says that under regulation most airlines met safety standards well above Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) minimums and were able to recover the costs as a business expense. Now the ``temptation'' for new and rapidly expanding airlines that don't have the same tradition and often do not share the same philosophy, he says, is to meet only minimum federal safety standards. ``We didn't get the tremendous safety record we have just by meeting FAA minimums,'' he says.
``Even some of the major carriers, in the light of the economic problems they've had, have cut their safety staffs to the bone or eliminated them,'' Mr. Miller adds. It is increasingly common, he says, for airlines to assume that ``it's up to the FAA to tell us if we're doing wrong -- but the FAA is never going to have enough people to do the whole job.'' Indeed, FAA chief Donald Engen recently stressed in a letter to the chairman of the House aviation subcommittee that the airlines ``must shoulder'' responsibility for the safety of their operations and maintenance.
The FAA, recently preoccupied with trying to rebuild its air traffic controller ranks, has acknowledged that it has had trouble keeping up with the rapid growth of airlines and for a time shifted its emphasis from periodic inspections to certifying new aircraft. A new FAA study of the workload of its 674 inspectors is now under way.
And during the last year the agency has made a concerted effort to improve its oversight and training programs.
Last Spring it conducted an intensive ``white glove'' inspection of the nation's then 327 airlines. Also, FAA chief Engen recently created a new office of aviation safety to report directly to him. ``It's a major, major step forward,'' Mr. Miller says.
Still, a rash of commuter-airline accidents in recent months, the FAA's grounding for a time of more than a dozen airlines over the last two years for safety violations, and a growing problem with falsified airline records have led some aviation-safety watchers to conclude that the watchdog agency's surveillance forces are not able to keep pace with the new challenges posed by deregulation.
One key indicator of the problem, says ALPA's Mr. Mazor, is the growing number of requests by airlines for FAA waivers from safety regulations on grounds they are too burdensome or costly. When one airline gets an exemption, he says, competitors request and often get similar treatment. While the waivers are often on relatively minor regulations, the cumulative effect of granting them, Mazor says, is leading to a ``racheting down'' of safety standards within the industry. ``It may take four or five years but sooner or later this kind of ripple effect catches up,'' he says.
Safety experts say they are also concerned about the growing tendency by more airlines as deregulation proceeds to contract out training, maintenance, and other service jobs. Indeed, in its report on the results of its 14,000 inspections last spring, the FAA warned that contracting out too many major functions could lead to a loss of control over these areas by the airline.
In the January 1982 Air Florida crash in Washington, D.C., one which a number of experts consider a classic example of safety problems resulting from deregulation, Ralph Nader's Aviation Consumer Action Project charged the FAA was remiss in not adequately supervising the de-icing and anti-icing job contracted out by Air Florida to another airline.
One of the primary causes cited by the NTSB in its report on the accident was the pilots' limited training and experience in winter flying. The Florida-based carrier had recently expanded its routes quickly in a number of new directions. Miller contends that he was ``surprised and disappointed,'' however, that the NTSB saw fit to make no link between causes of the crash and deregulation pressures.
``It's awfully tough to pin down a cause-and-effect relationship in any given accident,'' he says. ``But until the NTSB as an investigating body or the media raise the issue, and some of these things like poor maintenance . . . or [a lax] managerial attitude about safety are looked into in the course of an investigation, then how do we expect it to come out as an issue that the public should be concerned about?'' -- 30 --