Malaysia Airlines

Disappearance of Flight MH370 Sparks Debate Over Aviation Safety

As usual, it takes a tragedy to spark movement in the direction of safety. This is a cynical approach to safety in any industry, but particularly terrible when it comes to transportation vehicles, whether they are airplanes, helicopters, trucks, cars, railroads or ships.

Historically, manufacturers have rather consistently dragged their feet to add safety features to their vehicles. Preferring to save the cost of the improvement, companies have willingly risked the lives and health of those who operate, are carried in, or who find themselves in the unlucky path of the crash. This accounting has stained the corporate ledgers with the blood of too many victims whose lives could have been saved if they had acted to implement safety before catastrophe struck. It is sad to note that the Federal Aviation Administration has often been labeled as the Tombstone Agency. We can, and must, do better.

What is it that drives the movement toward safety? Is it political will? Is it manufacturer epiphany? Is it public outcry? Is it the legal system that holds them to account?

I would argue that the political will in the United States, and most other countries, is weak at best, and plays a very small role in promoting safety innovation. One only has to look at the fight over the creation and funding of our Consumer Protection Agency to understand that consumer rights – of which entitlement to safe transportation should be one – is not encouraged by a large, vocal, segment of our political discourse.

As for manufacturer epiphany, if there ever was any, it is hard to find in the public literature or in the known behavior of most companies. While it would surely be wrong to suggest that companies never develop and install safety devices on their own without public or legal pressure, corporate concern is, I believe, the least common driving force of major safety innovation.

Public outcry is important. The major problem with it is that it comes and goes on a cycle dependent on corporate news media’s decision to keep the issues alive to the point that public pressure outweighs cost concerns. It is no secret that the manufacturers are major advertisers, and that advertising dollars can have a decisive influence on the lengths to which a for-profit news organization is willing to go to keep up a drumbeat of information exposing dangerous products, particularly when it comes to transportation vehicles.

The greatest motivating factor for corporate America is money – profits – lots of it. Anything that poses a substantial threat to profit is the natural enemy of most manufacturers. Dangerous defective products pose little threat to the corporate bottom line in the abstract.  Even though there might be some penalty imposed by statutes or agencies, for the most part those fines pose little threat to profits, and even less publicity that has any staying power. But, the threat of legal action by dedicated lawyers who risk time and money to bring corporations to justice by proving that their product is defective, and that the defects cause serious injury or death, is a language that can be understood by the corporate captains who value profits over safety.

And, so, we have seen major safety innovations in cars and trucks driven by attacks on inadequate and unsafe design mounted by lawyers who have represented victims who’ve paid the price. Thus, seat belts and air bags on cars and trucks, gas tanks with vastly reduced risk of explosion in a crash for automobiles and aircraft, cockpit design changes that reduce confusion over which control is being manipulated by pilots (e.g., a lever in the shape of a wheel for the landing gear, one in the shape of a wing for the flaps, etc.) and other design changes that have made driving and flying much safer.

Each of these innovations was fought by manufacturers. Consumer attorneys fought for safety, and to hold manufacturers responsible for putting defective products on the market. Juries started recognizing that designs that fail to measure up to reasonable consumer expectations or that contains risks that substantially outweigh the utility of the design are culpable conditions. The pressure of justice, in the end, becomes the greatest motivating factor that pushes companies to design and manufacture products free from defects.

Which brings me to the immediate problem: how did a modern jet airliner, a 300 ton Boeing 777 flying a routine commercial route with passengers on board, disappear without a trace? Manufacturers have known for many years that the systems being utilized did not optimize location information throughout the length of many over-ocean flights. They have known for years that hijacking is a potential risk, and that sophisticated hijackers would know how to defeat onboard reporting and navigation systems (see: 9/11/2001). Airlines have long known that dangerous cargo that can explode should not be allowed on passenger flights. Yet, nothing has been done. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has cooperated with industry in dragging its feet on these, and related, issues for many years, and has yet to act. In fact, it now complains that it will still take years to fully implement safer systems.

The location of MH370 is, today, a complete mystery. The reasons it is a mystery are not mysterious at all. Lack of will politically, abdication of responsibility, and lack of a sufficient media megaphone to date have allowed airliners to fly without frequent electronic position reports. No matter where the airplane is; transponders can be manually disabled without automatically notifying air traffic control, and sending signals that immediately warn of hijacking; international rules do not prohibit dangerous cargo from passenger flights; archaic emergency locator equipment is allowed; twentieth century batteries are employed regardless of 21st Century technology; etc., etc.

It appears that somehow the legal system must find a way to push the reforms necessary to correct these, and a myriad of other, defects that threaten the lives and safety of air passengers.  Once again, consumer attorneys will be called upon to step up and fight the corporate giants, buck political lethargy and create a drumbeat of information on behalf of the MH370 victims and the traveling public; it could be up to them, in the end, to use the legal system to force the truth about what probably happened to the flight to be revealed, and to pressure those responsible to actually implement the needed safety systems.

Until airlines and manufacturers are convinced that the infrequency of these events is not a profitable excuse for implementation of safer designs, it is feared that little will be done. Do we actually have to wait until more lives are lost before action is taken?

Will the families of those aboard MH 370 ever have the peace that only justice can bring?


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