Flight 3407: What Do We Know and Why Do We Know It?


The public was made privy to many details about the crash of Colgan Air flight 3407, which killed 50 people near Buffalo, New York, in February, details that were revealed during a three-day public hearing conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board in mid-May.  We also gained some frightening insight into the operations of Colgan Air and the commuter air segment of the airline industry.


As one who flies a good deal, especially on commuter or regional jets, I’m glad to know that we’ll get a conclusive report about the fate of flight 3407 and that changes may be coming to the operations of commuter flights generally, if need be.  I doubt that I’m alone on this score, but I’d guess I’m in the minority in considering the reason that all these details were openly disclosed before the public. 


Every time a jet goes down, even where there’s no loss of life, the investigation of the incident is immediately handed over to a neutral, disinterested third party, one that has no financial stake in the outcome and whose only allegiance is to an accurate assessment of what went wrong.  That disinterested third party is, yes, the government.


Because it’s become so fashionable in some political circles to rail against The Government, I tried to imagine what would be different if we eliminated the Federal Aviation Administration and the NTSB’s role in the airline industry.  (The latter’s reach extends beyond aviation.)


Airline accidents would, of course, still be investigated, because the industry is as interested in safe flight as is the flying public.  The investigative body would probably be the product of a voluntary association comprising the industry players.  That body would hire, and compensate, the individuals charged with conducting the investigations.  A cottage industry would likely emerge, as companies compete with each other for contracts from the industry to make the necessary inquiries and produce final reports on the causes of the accidents.


Laissez faire and anti-government types would probably embrace this template, or something like it.  No government, no tax dollars, no problem.


Realistically speaking, however, a self-regulated airline industry would never work, at least not as well as the system we have now.  In the first place, the industry can’t afford it.  In its FY2009 budget estimate, for example, the FAA sought $9.8 billion to fund various aspects of its operations that are dedicated to safety, including aircraft inspections and the hiring and training of air traffic controllers.  Take that away and the industry has three choices:  cut costs, raise fares or compromise safety. 


Indeed, it’s doubtful that the airlines themselves would advocate a repeal of either the subsidy or the outsourcing of safety regulation to the government.  Besides the financial considerations, the industry doesn’t want the fear factor playing a role in the consumer’s decision-making when booking a flight. 


Another problem is the public’s confidence in private, industry-led investigations.  Most of us are completely unfamiliar with such a concept because FAA and NTSB involvement has been a part of the process for so long we barely think about, or even notice, it.  We take for granted that hearings will be open to the public and the press, that accident reports will be publicly disclosed and, failing that, subject to Freedom of Information Act requests.  Would the public accept a different regime?  I, for one, don’t think so and I’d like to see the Gallup or Harris people make such an inquiry.  I think it’s notable that a catastrophic accident doesn’t scare people away, en masse, from flying.  Would the same be true if we fully privatized airline safety and put it in the hands of, say, Enron’s Jeff Skilling, Lehman Brothers’ Dick Fuld, or Tribune mogul Sam Zell?


The founding fathers intended that one goal of the Constitution is to promote the general welfare.  Surely aviation safety, including the safety of those on the ground, fits within this goal.  The government’s role levels the safety playing field within the industry, allowing the airlines to compete based on routes and fares.  Yes, we pay for this regime with our tax dollars, and, no, it isn’t perfect, but the alternative would doubtlessly be worse and cost much more.