Accompanied by cheers from those who think you can never have enough government regulation of industry, let alone too much, the FAA issued a major smackdown to American Airlines this week. There was a familiar drumbeat in the media: another Evil Corporation shoving public safety aside in pursuit of Dirty Profits. [Of course, big media companies aren’t like that; they’re the Good Guys.] Stranded passengers were seething, furious at American.
If you haven’t been paying close attention, you may have missed what all the furor was about. What critical danger required 250,000 people to be massively inconvenienced? It was all about 1/4 inch of extra separation in 2 wires:
Townhall.com::The Best Route to Airline Safety::By Steve Chapman: “The agency said the wires have to be an inch apart, rather than the inch and a quarter American believed was sufficient. Executive Vice President Dan Garton said diplomatically that the FAA action suggests ‘a focus on extraordinarily strict adherence to specifics’ that was not present in the past.
The FAA was embarrassed by the Southwest episode, which drew charges of dereliction from Capitol Hill, and it reacted with an uncharacteristic display of toughness on an old directive.
As The Washington Post reported, industry officials said that in the past, ‘the agency would probably have allowed the carrier to make the fixes over a period of days or weeks. They noted that the 2006 directive on the MD-80 wiring gave airlines 18 months to comply. That means that regulators, while concerned about the wiring, didn’t believe that making the changes was a pressing safety matter.’
But all of a sudden it became one, and the result was some 250,000 stranded travelers. The mass inconvenience would be justified if it meant saving even one or two lives. But unnoticed in the furor is that during all the time these carriers were doing something supposedly dangerous, it didn’t cause any accidents. The carriers’ definition of ‘safe’ seems to have been vindicated.”
Of course, Garton and American had better be “diplomatic,” since it has just been vividly demonstrated that the FAA can run them out of business in days on a whim. When a regulatory agency is in full CYA mode, you’d better not piss them off any further by standing up for yourself and your customers. So 250,000 people had to miss flights, meetings, vacations, and homecomings and spend extra nights in hotels or airports, just so that the FAA can prove its “toughness” to grandstanding politicians.
In the end, this safety tempest was in an even smaller teapot, because only a few of the grounded planes were actually found to to have wiring outside the allowed distance, if that even matters.
UPDATE: It was not 250,000 inconvenienced passengers; it was 500,000. We apologize for the error.
You might also ask yourself, how pursuit of profits would lead rational managers to disregard safety. Unsafe airlines don’t draw any passengers and quickly go broke.