I had been asked by Fox to comment on a report by the Associated Press concerning a study conducted by NASA on commercial aviation safety. NASA, after spending $8.5 million interviewing more than 24 thousand commercial airline and general aviation pilots on issues of aviation safety, has refused to release the results of its investigation stating: “ . . . because it could materially affect the public confidence in, and the commercial welfare of, air carriers and general aviation companies whose pilots participated in the survey.”
It is bizarre that a safety investigation confirming the presence of serious safety problems has been determined to be itself more dangerous to the public than the risks it uncovered. Why would we not want the public to know about dangerous conditions concerning air travel especially when those risks are within our ability to correct? At a time when the public is regularly exposed to risks of terrorism affecting commercial aviation, risks which may be beyond our control to manage, we are nonetheless made aware of those risks through government reports without concern over the public’s confidence in commercial aviation being negatively impacted. In fact, despite the regular reports of airport security failures and the imposition of a new array of security procedures for passengers, the airline industry has become once again robust.
Having had the gift of make-up applied to my ever aging face, I sat outside the Studio B newsroom waiting to be called before the camera and the questioning of Shepherd Smith. Sitting there, I began to think of the events of the past few weeks that have focused on the ongoing deterioration of our aviation security system. Last week I had been called to discuss the revelation that the latest round of testing conducted on airport screeners’ ability to detect unassembled explosives had revealed that seventy percent of those devices had gone undetected at Los Angeles International Airport. The results at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport were somewhat better with only sixty percent of explosives getting through. I thought of all of the tests conducted by the General Accountability Office and the Inspector General of Homeland Security over the past 6 years that have resulted in the same failures and were followed by the same promises to do better in the future but have remained unfulfilled.
My mind shifted to the concern in the eyes of a senior mechanic for a major international air carrier who warned that the outsourcing of engine maintenance to China by his employer was resulting in aircraft coming back with poorly manufactured replacement parts badly installed and minimally functioning. I remembered his concern over having to sign off on those repairs or lose the job he ultimately retired from when he could no longer live with the knowledge that his company’s “fly to till failure” policy was daily gambling on the safety of its passengers and crews. I was reminded of last week’s story about commercial airliners being maintained in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and China in shops with uncertified mechanics, little or no security and no FAA oversight. I thought about the concern expressed on air about the ability of the those foreign workers to hide explosives and weapons on board those planes, and about how correct the concerns expressed by that former aviation mechanic over outsourcing of this vital link in the security and safety chain remains.
I also remembered the scores of times I sat in that same studio, and those of the other major networks, to raise the issue of the 900,000 aviation industry workers who daily enter airport security zones around the nation without going through the screening process passengers and flight crews must experience. I thought about that as I recalled the story in last week’s media about the 18 airline and airport workers who were arrested at JFK Airport in New York for smuggling narcotics into the country aboard the same aircraft they were servicing. I remembered the arguments offered by airlines, airports and other interested parties that their workers were trusted members of the industry who had gone through rigorous background checks and could with confidence be given access to airliners, baggage, cargo, maintenance facilities, food service containers and even duty-free storage without the need for daily screening. I remembered seeing the photos of other “trusted” aviation industry workers in handcuffs after having been arrested for violating the trust placed in them by committing similar crimes in airports around the nation.
While sitting there, thought about the recent report of 1million pieces of lost, stolen and misdirected checked baggage that been tallied between May and August of this year, a new record for a three month period. I heard in the background the ongoing report of the deadly fires that continued out of control in California. I was brought back to the reality that nothing much had really changed in aviation security since the explosion of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbee, Scotland in 1988. I was reminded that new tragedies would always replace our national concern over old ones, especially when they focus on issues, such as securing our commercial aviation from terrorism or man-made hazards such as our insatiable demand for more air service, at any price. As if to underscore my realization, the young producer who had escorted me to the newsroom appeared and apologetically informed me that “breaking news” required the cancellation of my segment for that day, with the reassurance that it would however be revisited soon.
The next morning I appeared once again at the Fox Studios to pursue the question of why NASA and the FAA had decided to protect us from ourselves by not revealing to us the risks of commercial flight, risks that we have the power to correct. Perhaps tomorrow I will be better prepared to answer that question – and some new ones such as why the New York and New Jersey Port Authority is resisting the FAA’s intention to reduce from 80 the number of take-offs and landings hourly at JFK Airport. Or I might be asked to comment on the loss of passenger baggage from an airliner in flight over Chicago as a possible cause of our missing baggage problem. Or perhaps, I might once again be bumped for “breaking news.”