Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Myths of Airline Safety

by Tom Bozzo

In a post also picking up my mention of United's ridiculously low ORD-CDG fare, Joe Malchow of Dartblog links a BitsBlog commentary on a recent incident in which most or all of the rudder from an Air Transat Airbus A310 in flight. Eric Florack writes:
We have an EU made Airbus, whose makers don't really want this info out, given the long standing suspicions about Airbus's culpability from a November 2001 crash, where 265 people died on American Airlines flight 587... in another rudder incident. (The pilots were blamed in that one, if you will recall) Then there's the report of the non-fatal crashes which were amazingly similar.
Because of the considerable economic stakes in accident investigations, it's not surprising (if not encouraging, either) that the manufacturers seek to direct blame towards flight crew error or other non-design causes of crashes and other incidents. This is not to absolve Airbus or any other manufacturer of responsibility for design or manufacturing flaws, of course.

(Addendum 3/17/05: Florack notes in comments that he was not implying a "uniquely troublesome" airworthiness issue for Airbus. I'll clarify that I'm not addressing possible political aspects of the Air Transat A310 incident other than the airworthiness issue.)

What would be wrong would be to conclude that Florack has identified an issue airworthiness issues for widely used airliners are unique to Airbus. The ubiquitous Boeing 737 had a series of incidents and even fatal crashes in which a flawed rudder control system design was a suspected cause. Boeing had quite actively sought to direct blame for the most serious crash, US Air flight 427 near Pittsburgh in 1994, to the flight crew. The 737 nevertheless has a good safety record overall.

(See here for a summary of Seattle Times reporting on the subject; unfortunately, most of the links on the page no longer work.)

An irony is that the great progress made in eliminating many airline accident causes — controlled flight into terrain, mid-air collisions, even some sources of human error — has made remaining accident causes subtler and thus perhaps more prone to economically and politically driven contentiousness.
I don't think I ever suggested the flightworthyness was uniquely troublesome. The politics surrounding the event, however, are in fact unique, given the rather unique set of players involved.
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