WASHINGTON — It's been 43 months since the last deadly airline crash in the United States, the longest period without a fatal domestic accident since commercial aviation expanded after World War II. That sounds like unvarnished good news, but one consequence of having such a remarkable record is that it's difficult to justify imposing costly new safety rules on the economically fragile industry.
In analyzing costs and benefits, federal rules assign a value of $6.2 million to each life saved. Even modest changes in regulations can cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars when spread across a number of years.
"The extraordinary safety record that has been achieved in the United States ironically could be the single biggest reason the (Federal Aviation Administration) isn't able to act proactively and ensure safety into the future," said Bill Voss, president of the industry-funded Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va., which promotes global airline safety. The past decade has been the airline industry's safest ever.
Last year, the FAA revised rules on pilot work schedules and rest periods to address concerns that tired pilots were making mistakes, sometimes with fatal results. But the agency dropped requirements that would have extended the new rules to cargo carriers. FAA officials said the rule changes would have cost the cargo industry as much as $300 million over 10 years.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has urged cargo executives to voluntarily comply with the new rules, but so far he's had no takers.
"We're doing rulemaking in a system that is very, very safe," LaHood said in an interview. "Sometimes it does get to be difficult to produce the cost justification for the kinds of rules that we're promoting."
Last year, the FAA missed a congressionally mandated deadline for issuing new regulations on pilot training. Congress ordered the new rules after the nation's last fatal airline crash, on Feb. 12, 2009, when a startled captain overrode a key safety system as his airliner lost lift and began to stall.
An investigation showed the plane would have been able to fly had the captain responded correctly. Instead, it plummeted into a house near Buffalo, N.Y., killing all 49 people aboard and a man in the home. Investigators cited pilot training lapses by the regional airline, Colgan Air, as a factor.
The FAA began work on revamping training rules in 1999. Regulators had proposed new rules just before the Colgan crash but effectively withdrew them for more work after the accident. Final rules aren't scheduled to be issued until next year, and airlines aren't expected to have to meet the new requirements until February 2019 — 20 years after the FAA started work on the rules and 10 years after the Colgan accident.
Training regulations haven't kept pace with changing technology, said John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member. Planes are far safer than they used to be, he said, "but it's much more difficult to fix the human being, and that's who is responsible for most of the accidents these days."
"There are a lot of things on the table that will help, but they cost money and it's going very slowly," Goglia said.
Scott Maurer, who lost his 30-year-old daughter, Lorin, in the Colgan crash, said that in the past, families of accident victims and others seeking safety improvements have been worn down and outlasted by the glacial pace of the FAA's rulemaking process.
"We understand many are feeling good about the interval without a crash fatality since Colgan (Flight) 3407," said Maurer, of Moore, S.C. "We certainly believe our efforts have helped to keep the focus on doing the right thing in safety. But without rules to sustain this effort, we know the race to the bottom will continue at regional airlines and the airline industry as a whole as the push for profits becomes ever more important."
The delays are due to complexities involved in drafting such rules and the agency's obligation to carefully respond to objections raised by industry and others, FAA officials said.
There has also been a philosophical shift at the agency over the past decade that emphasizes a collaborative relationship between regulators and airlines. This collaborative approach works just as well as imposing one-size-fits-all regulations on industry, and sometimes it works better, FAA officials said.
Since the late 1990s, airlines and the FAA have placed a greater emphasis on voluntary data-gathering programs that enable airlines to spot and correct problems before they lead to accidents. Airlines are also pooling information in search of industry-wide trends and disclosing their problems to regulators through a government-industry safety working group without fear of punishment. The data collaboration has moved beyond analyzing past accidents and incidents for safety lessons to searching for clues on emerging vulnerabilities in day-to-day airline operations, FAA and industry officials said.
Such data analysis has the greatest potential to yield future safety improvements, they said.
"We're not waiting for a rules change to come out. We're out there using our data and making these decisions," said Ken Hylander, senior vice president for safety and security at Delta Air Lines and co-chair of the government-industry working group.
For example, airlines generally tell pilots not to abort takeoffs after a plane has reached a speed of about 90 mph because in most cases it's safer to continue the takeoff even if there's a safety concern. But occasionally pilots abort takeoffs at high speeds anyway.
Using data automatically gathered by a plane's computers, an airline can pinpoint exactly what was happening at the moment that a decision to abort was made. Perhaps there was a warning light that a cargo door was open or some other safety indicator. Airlines can then take those examples and use them in training programs to show pilots why they should continue a takeoff.
"There are literally hundreds of people at all the airlines collecting and analyzing data," Margaret Gilligan, FAA's associate administrator for safety, said. "They are working with us voluntarily on all kinds of committees to share that data among themselves because there are things we want an airline to find out and fix for itself. But there are also things we want to understand as an industry that might be systemic, that any individual airline might not see the risk, but when we can combine the data we can see there is a risk emerging that no one has identified yet."
But Tom Haueter, who recently retired as head of the National Transportation Safety Board's aviation safety office, said he worries the industry and regulators are becoming complacent.
"I talk to people all the time who say we have this fantastic accident rate and we've cured all these problems," he said, "but I think if we forget the lessons of the past, we might have to relive them."
Follow Joan Lowy at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy
The Commercial Aviation Safety Team: http://www.cast-safety.org