Airline regulation, the glory days… sort of

Its in the airlines best interest to make money…. and as long as the probability of an accident has not changed appreciably from quarter to quarter, they will continue to reduce costs. Note, the key word appreciably… a 0.1% reduction in safety every quarter does build over time, even if its not noticeable on a quarterly report, much less in practice.

In the 70’s, service was what sold, regulated ticket prices were multifold higher than what they are today. However, the process controls and such to improve safety were still in development. Instead, the airlines relied on highly skilled people in nearly all areas of their operation. And despite that, the accident rates were much higher than today. Case in point, the crew coordination on theEastern Air Lines 401 crash. A highly experienced crew, albeit new in type, focused all their attention on a landing gear annunciator, while their plane slowly descended into a swamp.

747 Piano Bar
747 Piano Bar


Today, with a high degree of automation, process controls in design, manufacturing, operations, and service insuring high reliability, the high levels of skill needed in years past, as long as nothing goes wrong, is not really needed, at least not all the time. There in lies the problem, as long as nothing goes wrong. And the problem is exacerbated, by the temptation for the airlines, the government, and the employees, to rely more and more on process, and less so on skill, in order to minimize labor costs, and thereby maximize the revenue stream.

Over the next few blog entries, I’m going to take a look at these different groups, and changes over the years which have created potentially more broken links which can lead to an accident, despite vast improvements in process control. These issues are prevalent, not only in the airline world, but also in general aviation. They are systemic problems, and sadly short of returning to the days of regulation, are unlikely to be solved. The feedback provided by the free market system, while it can work, has such huge time lags, far too many people would die, or be seriously injured, before the constraints of the free market system could kick in, if they would at all due to secondary consequences.

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