Call it the new "normal." When American Airlines Flight 587 crashed shortly after takeoff from New York's JFK last November, the first order of business was to determine whether the crash was the result of a terrorist act. When evidence pointed to an accident, the relief was enormous, the grief of the victims' loved ones notwithstanding.
Fortunately, such catastrophes are still rare. Terrorism aside, flying remains the safest mode of transportation. (Arnold Barnett, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has calculated that a person would have to take one flight a day for 21,000 years before perishing in a commercial aviation accident.) Yet the new concerns raised by last September's attacks have resulted in great change. A new federal agency, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), has now taken over responsibility for aviation security. The Federal Aviation Administration, for its part, has been forced to rethink its mission. And although at press time flight volume had returned to about 90 percent of pre-9/11 levels, the major airlines were still facing a crisis: the industry could lose up to $5 billion this year.
What's the bottom line for travelers?With a nod to the three R's, T+L's first aviation report card is divided into the three S's—Security, Safety, and Service—and assesses key issues in each area. Like any good teacher, our aim is to note where progress has been made but also, and perhaps more important, to call for action where improvement is needed.
No single issue in aviation has commanded more attention than security since 9/11. Much has already been accomplished. The airlines have completed "phase one" of the TSA's cockpit reinforcement program (neither the TSA nor the Air Transport Association will detail what this is, for security reasons). The National Guard has stopped patrolling most of the nation's airports, but local law enforcement has taken its place. And thousands of sky marshals continue to fly undercover on an undisclosed number of domestic flights.
Much is also still in flux. At press time, it was uncertain whether pilots would be allowed to carry guns. Improved ID cards were under consideration, but little progress had been made. And the TSA was experiencing growing pains, receiving its second new director, Admiral James Loy, in less than a year.
Since last November, when the president signed sweeping aviation security measures into law, the federal government's main priority has been to meet two deadlines: to take over checkpoint screening at the nation's 429 airports by this November 19, and to screen all checked baggage for explosives by December 31. According to TSA spokeswoman Deirdre O'Sullivan, the government will meet both deadlines. But what does it mean in practice?
As of July 23, six airports (Baltimore was the largest of them) had been completely "federalized"—screeners tested, hired, and trained as federal, not private, employees. By the end of this month, another 133 airports were expected to be on their way, including some of the nation's busiest hubs.
The TSA plans to hire many, but not all, of the screeners who've been working for private consulting firms. However, the 51,000 new federal screeners will be subject to much tougher hiring criteria, including criminal background checks, and will receive more-thorough training—a total of 104 hours, 44 in class and 60 on the job. They will also receive higher pay, in an effort to reduce the typically high turnover rate.
It's far too early to gauge the effectiveness of the federal employees. In the meantime, government "stings" conducted in the months after 9/11 have found that the existing system still contains vulnerabilities. Most recently, in undercover tests at 32 of the nation's largest airports this past June, TSA agents found that screeners failed to detect fake weapons (simulated guns, dynamite, bombs) 24 percent of the time.
Technology will be a major component in improving passenger screening. Tests of facial-recognition cameras at Boston's Logan and Dallas—Fort Worth airports showed better than 90 percent success rates, but tests at Palm Beach International Airport had just a 50 percent success rate. (The manufacturer blamed poor lighting.) High-definition imaging machines —using low-grade X rays that effectively undress you, even outlining your private parts, to search for concealed contraband—are also in trial runs at U.S. airports, but they're unpopular with some travelers. The ACLU, which has called the machine's imaging a "virtual strip search," opposes it for being overly invasive. The National Research Council has created a panel to study these and other new technologies; it's expected to make recommendations early next year.
Though CT scanners are expensive—they cost $750,000 apiece and nearly as much to install—they are considered highly reliable. As for trace detectors, a panel of scientists working for the National Research Council concluded earlier this year that there is no way to gauge such machines' effectiveness. Bomb experts have questioned the TSA's decision, noting that various odors may confuse the machines. The TSA won't say how many CT scanners and trace detectors it already has in use around the country, although it is purchasing 1,100 CT scanners and up to 6,000 trace detectors.
Cargo shipped on passenger planes remains a significant security threat. Prior to September 11, the focus of cargo screening was hazardous material, a concern heightened by the c-9Progress Report:et Flight 592 over the Florida Everglades, which was caused by an illegal shipment of oxygen tanks. Last fall, Kenneth Mead, the Department of Transportation's inspector general, raised the issue of cargo safety before a group of aviation safety advocates meeting outside Washington, D.C., and since then, both his office and the TSA have been studying ways to reduce additional risks from terrorism.
True, planting an explosive in cargo would be difficult—terrorists wouldn't necessarily know what flight their shipment would go on, and wouldn't know when to detonate the explosives. But it's worth noting that cargo shipments, which are carried on most passenger flights, are rarely screened. (Neither the TSA nor the ATA will disclose what percentage is screened.) They're also almost never opened and searched; more often, inspectors simply give them a visual once-over, looking for leaking hazardous material.
Immediately following last September's terrorist attacks, the FAA, then still responsible for overseeing security, forbade all businesses without federal clearance to ship cargo on passenger planes. Earlier this year, the DOT Inspector General's office noted that it would nonetheless still be relatively easy for someone to pose as a legitimate shipper and gain clearance.
It's uncertain whether the year-end deadline for screening passenger bags also applies to cargo; the TSA's lawyers are studying the matter. At press time, the TSA was also reviewing recommendations from the DOT IG's office on improving cargo security. That report was expected to be made public sometime this year.
With the airlines burdened by massive losses, the FAA is currently facing the daunting task of making sure they don't take safety shortcuts—unwitting or otherwise. In theory, the agency should be up to the task: now that the TSA oversees security, safety is the FAA's chief responsibility. Yet, in a mirror image of pre—September 11 security procedures, the FAA actually reliesProgress Report:airlines themselves to maintain their fleets.
At press time, the FAA was awaiting confirmation of a new top administrator, Marion Blakely, the former head of the National Transportation Safety Board. For her agency, the lesson of 9/11 looms large: should the FAA be doing more to ensure that flying remains safe?
There is a bright spot on the safety front: incursions—generally, near misses on the ground between planes or a plane and another object—dropped in 2001, the first decline in several years. By 2000, incursions had hit record levels, 431 by the FAA's count, up 110 percent from 1999. The main reason: air-traffic volume had never been higher, and many airports were handling more planes than they were designed to during peak hours. Worldwide, incursions are one of the top five causes of aviation fatalities, and many observers considered it a miracle that there hadn't been a major runway accident in the U.S. in recent years.
To help counter the problem, the FAA developed new early-warning technology to monitor runway traffic: the Airport Movement Area Safety Systems (amass). As of July, 24 airports around the country had it, including most of the big hubs. This summer, Denver was scheduled to start using it, followed by Dallas this month.
Given the correlation between air-traffic volume and runway incursions, it was no surprise that runway incursions fell last year, to 381. However, as traffic began to increase during the first three months of 2002, the trend continued: the FAA logged 62 incursions, compared with 96 during the same (but still busier) period a year earlier. Although we won't know how effective amass is until air-traffic volume returns to pre-9/11 levels, it appears to be making a difference.
"Controlled flight into terrain"—that is, a collision between a plane and the earth, usually mountains near an airport—is a leading cause of aviation fatalities worldwide. Midair collisions, though infrequent, are also responsible for some of the worst aviation disasters. Although the problem is less severe in the United States because of our more sophisticated air-traffic control system, accidents could still occur.
Since 1995, all commercial planes in this country have been equipped with the Traffic Collision & Avoidance System (TCAS), which essentially "talks" to other planeb+Progress Report:s to prevent midair collisions. According to reports at press time, the TCAS in the Russian passenger jet that collided with a DHL cargo plane over Germany in July had ins—d the jet's pilots to ascend to avoid a crash. But an air-traffic controller contradicted the TCAS instruction, and the jet descended, colliding with the other plane. Had the pilots relied on TCAS, the tragedy might have been avoided.
Another early-warning technology, the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (egpws), is credited with averting as many as 20 disasters involving aircraft crashing into terrain over the past five years. Last January, egpws prevented an Alaska Airlines plane that was approaching Tucson airport from hitting the Santa Catalina Mountains. (In contrast, neither the Air China plane that crashed into mountains outside Pusan, Korea, in April nor the EgyptAir jet that hit a hillside while landing in Tunis in May had egpws.) An enhanced version of egpws is required on all new planes in this country as of this year; older planes must be retrofitted with the latest version by 2005.
Two years ago, after the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 off the California coast, an FAA audit revealed that the airline's internal safety program was all but broken. Amazingly, the FAA hadn't inspected the carrier for safety in two years. The agency uncovered repair delays, insufficient parts testing, and inadequate quality control.
Concerned that these problems might exist industry-wide, the FAA conducted complete safety audits at nine top airlines. Its report, released in March 2001, cited only one, AmericaWest, as having an "inadequate" maintenance program, though American also had significant weaknesses. The airlines audited say they have made improvements, which may well be true, since the review was conducted in 2000. But there's no clear way to know, since at press time the FAA said it had aoProgress Report:t follow-up inspections.
The agency's ongoing program for monitoring safety, the Air Transportation Oversight System (ATOS), was launched in 1998. ATOS marked a historic shift in the FAA's safety mission—for the first time, it was to begin assessing airline safety data, with the idea of È detecting safety problems before they became widespread or, in a worst-case scenario, led to a crash. Previously, the FAA had concentrated on spot-check inspections that revealed existing violations.
At a congressional hearing this spring, the DOT IG's office nevertheless faulted the FAA for its safety oversight. Among the IG's findings: the FAA's data analysis is spotty at best, and, what's more, the agency's inspectors aren't being adequately trained (71 percent interviewed by the IG's office complained of incomplete training). The FAA says it is currently analyzing the quality of the program.
Following september 11, air travelers have had to contend with long lines at security checkpoints and reduced amenities on board. But on the whole, flying today has actually become more pleasant. Almost everyone—from airline personnel to passengers—seems friendlier and more tolerant. How long this will continue is anyone's guess: as a culture, we've got a short memory. But for the time being, flying appears to be on a more civilized course.
Who can forget the epic flight delays during the summer of 2000?Not surprisingly, the drop-off in air-traffic volume since last September has resulted in fewer delays and cancellations of scheduled flights. Another factor: prior to 9/11, two airlines had already revamped their schedules at major hubs—Delta in Atlanta, American in Chicago—which may be helping to reduce delays as well, particularly during peak travel times.
For example, in May of this year, the lctProgress Report:ich figures were available at press time, the DOT reported that carriers canceled 1 percent of their scheduled flights on average, compared with 1.8 percent a year earlier. As for delays, the DOT reported that 82.8 percent of flights were on time in May, versus 81.5 percent a year earlier. The FAA, which tracks delays in a different way, reported that in May holdups were down 22 percent from May 2001.
Meanwhile, the FAA's Free Flight Program, which should also help ease delays, continues to move forward. Free Flight will gradually allow pilots to have more say in choosing their routes, rather than having air-traffic controllers dictate their flight paths and altitudes. As part of the program, the FAA is in the process of installing $200 million in necessary software in the nation's 20 air-traffic centers. So far, it's up and running at six of them, and should be operating at all 20 by the end of 2004.
Three years ago, airline service had deteriorated to such an extent that Congress was ready to intervene by enacting groundbreaking passenger-rights legislation. To thwart the lawmakers, the airline industry crafted a 12-point pledge to put consumers first. This pledge—which included commitments to help customers find the lowest fare, to provide timely notice of delays and cancellations, and to respond in a timely fashion to complaints—has laid the foundation for smoother relations.
In the summer of 2001, when the government last weighed in on airline service, the DOT's Inspector General told Congress that most airlines were on their way to incorporating this service commitment into their contracts of carriage. That means customers will be able to hold the airlines liable for infractions of their pledge. At the same time, the DOT IG's office noted that the airlines had not addressed several of its recommendations, including, among other things, that customer service reps automatically inform passengers of a flight's track record of on-time performance when they purchase tickets. (Today, many airlines still make you ask for this information.)
It is one measure of customer satisfaction that complaints to the DOT from air travelers have dropped markedly since last year. In May, complaints were down 34.2 percent from May 2001. Of course, these numbers may not reflect the true extent of customer dissatisfaction, since, according to Dean Headley, professor of marketing at Wichita State University and co-author of an annual airline quality rating, many air travelers who would like to file a complaint do not follow through. Nonetheless, passengers may have elected to grin and bear more inconveniences, just as the airlines' difficult economic situation has made them more eager to please. "The airlines know how far they can push the flying public," says Headley. "If they don't pay attention, if they don't make changes, they lose the business."
On the whole, pre—September 11 data suggest that a trend toward better service had begun even before the attacks. ATA spokesperson Mike Wascom points out that in many areas, such as lost baggage, service was already improving. Headley's 2001 survey, released in the spring, showed similar findings.
Kenneth Mead, U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General For keeping the aviation industry, the FAA, and now the TSA on their toes with incisive reports and congressional testimony on security, safety, and service.
Paul Hudson, director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project (www.acap1971.org) For quietly working the corridors of power in Washington, advocating tougher safety requirements such as wider emergency exit aisles and fuel tank suppression systems.
Jet Blue For showing the industry and flying public that, yes, commercial aviation can still be fun (satellite TV), cool (in-flight Crunch yoga instruction), and lucrative (five consecutive profitable quarters since the New York—based carrier launched in February 2000).
Taking Matters into Your Own Hands: Aviation Safety Resources
The Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Transportation Safety Board post reams of data on their Web sites, but the information is so fragmented and incident-specific that it's hard to get a handle on whether one airline is any safer than another. The FAA does not provide safety rankings by carrier, nor does it announce when an individual carrier is under special surveillance for possible safety lapses.
As FAA spokesperson Les Dorr explains, "The majority of passengers care more about getting to their destination on time than about whether the plane is going to crash, because they take the high level of safety for granted." Representative John Mica, chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, disagrees. "We rate cruise ships on health-condition standards, and restaurants for sanitary conditions," he says. "But people can get on an aircraft and not know much about its safety. Creating a maintenance evaluation system that could be translated into some standard report that the public would have access to would be an excellent idea."
For the time being, there are some good resources for those who want to know more about aircraft safety, including the following:
· www.boeing.com/commercial/safety Boeing launched this site early this summer.
· www.aviationsafetyalliance.org Useful background information for aviation journalists from a consumer advocacy group.
· www.airline-safety-records.com A site that ranks airlines for safety.
· Flying Blind, Flying Safe by Mary Schiavo (Avon Books, $25). The outspoken former DOT Inspector General explores the way Washington and the airlines work.