The United States aviation system already is the safest in the world, but the government wants to make it even safer.
Accompanied by the transportation secretary and the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, Vice President Al Gore Tuesday announced at least two steps in that direction: more rigorous engine inspections and the mandatory installation of enhanced ground-warning systems within the next three years.Both would be steps toward a goal of cutting the U.S. fatal accident rate by 80 percent over the next 10 years. Now there is roughly one major accident per 1 million flights, but with the number of passengers in the United States alone expected to increase from 600 million to over 1 billion a year by 2010, the added number of flights could result in six or seven major accidents annually by then.
Government officials want to go in the opposite direction, taking the current rate of three to four major accidents per year even lower.
"We are proud that flying is already the safest way to travel. The steps we are announcing will make the safest skies in the world even safer," Gore said during a news conference at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Joining him were Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, officials from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and various labor and airline industry representatives. Slater and Garvey were expected to unveil several other safety goals.
The two priorities highlighted by Gore would address critical problems in the aviation industry.
With airliners increasingly using two engines instead of three or four to reduce maintenance and fuel costs, simpler, more standardized inspections are needed to ensure the safety of the revolving components, including titanium fan blades. The goal of the inspections will be to reduce uncontained engine failures, in which flying engine parts - usually fan blades - can puncture the passenger compartment.
The enhanced ground-proximity indicators, meanwhile, are aimed at a vexing aviation problem: The unintentional flight of an airworthy plane into the ground. The phenomenon, called "controlled flight into terrain," accounted for 25 percent of all commercial airplane accidents worldwide from 1987 to 1996. Those crashes killed 2,396 people.
The new systems, which some airlines are already installing voluntarily, compare a plane's location to a global database of mountains, while the current system looks down to measure altitude. That makes it difficult to detect sharply rising mountains and other impediments.
The announcement is part of a renewed emphasis on aviation safety that followed the May 1996 ValuJet crash in the Florida Everglades and the explosion of TWA Flight 800 off the New York coast two months later.