Thirty million Americans admit to being “anxious” fliers, but even the most intrepid air traveler might be shaken after two fatal crashes on U.S. soil in a matter of days. Still, advances in airplane design and increased government oversight have improved the safety record of the American air system considerably in recent decades. We explore the strengths and weaknesses of modern airplane technology and air traffic systems.

Guests

  • Tom Haueter aviation safety consultant; former Director of Aviation Safety, National Transportation Safety Board
  • Mark Gerchick aviation consultant; author "Full Upright and Locked Position: Not-So-Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today"; former chief counsel, Federal Aviation Administration

Airbus A380 Evacuation Test

Testing the emergency exits on an Airbus A380 in order to evacuate in less than 90 seconds.

Transcript

  • 12:06:38

    MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the PBS NewsHour, sitting in for Kojo. Coming up this hour, air travel is the safest mode of transportation. The year 2012 was the safest year to fly worldwide since 1945. But a big commercial crash -- like the one we saw in San Francisco this weekend -- is enough to rattle even a few frequent fliers' nerves.

  • 12:07:14

    MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIStill, many industry experts are pointing to the quick evacuation of the plane and low number of fatalities as a sign that safety measures put in place over the last few decades are working. Here to talk us through some of those measures and here to answer our questions about just how safe it is to take to the skies are Mark Gerchick. He's an aviation consultant and former chief counsel for the Federal Aviation Administrator -- Administration. He's also the author of "Full Upright and Locked Position: Not-So-Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today." Hi, Mark.

  • 12:07:47

    MR. MARK GERCHICKHi, Christina. How are you?

  • 12:07:48

    BELLANTONIJoining us from Colorado, we have aviation safety consultant Tom Haueter. He retired last year from the National Transportation Safety Board where he was the director of aviation safety. Hi, Tom.

  • 12:08:01

    MR. TOM HAUETERGood morning. How are you doing?

  • 12:08:02

    BELLANTONIGood. Thanks. So, Mark, I'm curious. A number of federal agencies are involved in air safety, and you each worked for one of the big ones. So what's the FAA's role, and how does it fit into the big picture?

  • 12:08:14

    GERCHICKWell, the FAA is basically the regulator. They're the folks that make sure that the system is working properly. They're running the air traffic control system. They're enforcing the rules. They're doing -- they're taking the -- making the air worthiness directives, which are rules that go out to the industry and the airlines on a near-daily basis.

  • 12:08:35

    GERCHICKThe NTSB is the investigatory agency. They're the ones who try to figure out what happened, and they try to make recommendations. They do make recommendations, many of them to the FAA and other agencies, and tell the FAA what they think ought to be done.

  • 12:08:49

    BELLANTONITom, how do you see the NTSB's role?

  • 12:08:52

    HAUETERWell, as mentioned, the NTSB is an independent agency. In fact, we don't even report to the president. And our role is strictly to investigate accidents, incidents, determine what happened and to make recommendations in aviation -- they mostly go to the FAA -- to improve transportation safety. And so the NTSB has a very narrow role. And also we have no regulatory authority. All we could do is make recommendations and then use the power of our investigations, the quality of our analysis to ensure that safety improvements do occur.

  • 12:09:30

    BELLANTONIAnd so, Tom, just to stay with you for a moment, what is the average rate of acceptance for these recommendations, and what's the most common reason given when they're not adopted?

  • 12:09:40

    HAUETERWell, the average -- the acceptance rate right now is around 80 percent, had been as high as 82 percent, which is very high. We're very pleased with that. Now, you can ask what happens to the 18, 20 percent, and there is a couple of issues. One, sometimes the issue is that we're pushing for something that's going to take years for the recipient to make action on. So it's not closed. It's an open status, and it's going to be that way for many years.

  • 12:10:12

    HAUETERSometimes also we're taking a look at something that we know is really pushing the issue, but -- if we want to really raise the bar, and the agency may come back and say, we don't have the technology and the means to do that now. And then finally the ones where we agree to disagree. The FAA must do a cost-benefit study on making regulatory change. The NTSB has been constrained by cost-benefit.

  • 12:10:39

    HAUETERAnd what happens eventually is that some of these recommendations may become closed, unacceptable action. But Safety Board keeps note of all these, and if the event happens in the future, we'll use that and say, hey, wait a second. We told you years ago to take action, you didn't, and look-see what's happened now.

  • 12:10:58

    BELLANTONIYou can join our conversation. Tell us, are you a nervous flier? What worries you most about air safety? Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. You can always email, kojo@wamu.org. Send us a note through our Facebook page, or send a tweet to @kojoshow. So, Mark, whenever there's a big crash or a number of smaller ones like we've seen in the last week -- you know, this crash in Alaska and obviously what happened in San Francisco -- there's going to be a lot of media coverage. Is this actually disproportionate to the threat?

  • 12:11:28

    GERCHICKWell, you know, actually I think it is. If you look at Monday's Washington Post, the story about the freight rail derailment in Canada, a little town just across the U.S. border, now 15 people are dead. The entire town has pretty much been destroyed. And as I recall, there's about three inches of copy on page five of the Post, whereas I believe it was still, two days later, it was still the air crash in San Francisco, which unfortunately killed two people, one of whom may have actually been hit by a fire rescue vehicle.

  • 12:12:01

    GERCHICKSo, yes, it is. And I would -- there have been some analyses of news coverage. I think there is a -- an MIT professor years ago did an analysis of the front pages of The New York Times and found that the proportion of coverage of air accidents was about 90-to-1 compared to homicides. So we do take it -- we very -- it's a very important and very viscerally and emotionally, you know, stimulating kind of a thing, an air crash, because, after all, in some ways we still think it's magic.

  • 12:12:30

    BELLANTONIYeah. It does feel like that sometimes when you're flying through the air, and that gets right to the next question because our perception of this risk, the -- what it poses to us individually is really very different from this crash fatality rate. So how safe is it to fly? I mean, what are the statistics?

  • 12:12:45

    GERCHICKIt really is remarkably safe. The statistics indicate that you'd have to fly something like every single day for 63,000 years in order to be involved in a fatal accident. I think, again, an MIT professor, Arnold Barnett, calculated it's about one in 23 million is your chances of having a fatal accident on any given flight. So it's extremely safe, and it's just a matter of statistics. You know, as human beings, we're kind of -- we have difficulty assessing the idea of relative risk. Even if it's extremely tiny, people think that it could happen to them, and it's just so remote that it's not really an issue.

  • 12:13:21

    BELLANTONIAnd, in fact, Mark Gerchick, in your book, "Full Upright and Locked Position," you write that you have a 10 to 20 -- 10 to 40 times more likely to die in an auto accident than you are to die in a plane crash. So you can weigh in to our conversation. Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Always send email to kojo@wamu.org or tweet to @kojoshow. And let us know: Do you work in the airline industry?

  • 12:13:46

    BELLANTONIWe want to hear about the safety changes you've seen or what you would like to see. Right now, we're going to talk to Joe in Richmond, Va. He has a question about this crash in San Francisco. Hi, Joe. Thanks for joining us.

  • 12:13:57

    JOEGood afternoon. Yeah. My comment is pretty basic. Based off of what I've seen on the news thus far, this was just plain lack of experience on the pilot's part and the other crew members in the cockpit. The guy, based off of what I saw, has 40-some hours of airtime in that model airplane, that particular model, which, you know, you won't want a doctor coming out of medical school with only 40-some hours on a particular specialty working on you, you know? And you can use that analogy towards anything.

  • 12:14:24

    BELLANTONISure. Now, Tom Haueter with us from Colorado, why don't you weigh in on that one? How safe is it?

  • 12:14:29

    HAUETERWell, I can. I mean, the pilot had about 10,000 hours of experience flying, you know, large aircraft, and at some point you have to transition to another airplane. And this happens all the time in the United States, that a person's been flying one airplane and moves on to another. And the airlines go through a great amount of training off of -- it takes about a month-and-a-half, two months, to get fully trained before -- and you have to pass quite a bit test before you go out on the line.

  • 12:14:57

    HAUETERAnd when you do go out on the line, for that first 100 hours, you're on what's called high minimum. You have to fly with a much more senior co-pilot. Your approaches have to be done at a higher altitude. You can go as low as you can later on. It's all done to get the guy more acquainted with the airplane, and this goes on in the United States. There's probably hundreds of airplanes out there flying right now where the captain's on high minimum because he is new to that airplane, and it's the only way to do it.

  • 12:15:26

    HAUETERYou know, people learn more with hundreds of hours in every specific make and model, but they do have thousands of hours in similar types. The biggest change recently is -- training is pilots going from the old round-gauge aircraft to more modern electronic airplanes. It takes more time. But the captain, in fact, in flight, have been flying 747s for quite a while, a very large, sophisticated aircraft.

  • 12:15:52

    HAUETERAnd so he has a lot of experience and training. Just, you know, he didn't have a lot of time in this particular make and model. But, you know, the FAA rule was handled the same way. You would require 100 hours of very careful observation by more experienced people. And once again, he passed a lot of training and a lot of simulator work before he was allowed to go out and actually fly the passengers.

  • 12:16:17

    BELLANTONISo -- and how different is it to switch aircraft, Mark Gerchick? Is it like switching cars, or are these planes really very different from one another?

  • 12:16:25

    GERCHICKWell, I'd have to leave that to Tom because that's really a technical issue, but certain types of aircraft are very, very similar. For example, if you're type-rated on a particular kind of a jet, you can relatively quickly transfer to a -- one of the more modern jets that is a similar make, particularly within the same manufacturer.

  • 12:16:44

    BELLANTONISo, Tom, how the...

  • 12:16:45

    HAUETERAnd that's actually correct. With Airbus, within the Airbus family, all of the cockpit layouts are essentially identical. So you go from a smaller one up to a large one, even a 380. They're very similar. The biggest difference between like an Airbus 320 and a 380 is instead of having two throttles, you have four. And -- but there's also the size and everything else, and you have to get used to that.

  • 12:17:10

    HAUETERBut nowadays, moving between a family of aircraft -- excuse me -- even like with the Boeing series, they designed them to be very similar so there's much less training on the part of the pilots to move them through the series of airplanes. You know, eventually, people move from co-pilot to a captain seat, and it does take upgraded training, and there's things you have to do. But it's not as difficult as it used to be by a long shot.

  • 12:17:39

    HAUETERMost, especially the new electronic airplanes, are very similar. The biggest differences we see is somebody moving from, say, a Boeing airplane to an Airbus where instead of having a yoke and column in front of you, you have a side stick, and controls are slightly different. And that takes considerably more training before a pilot is ready to go on the line.

  • 12:17:59

    BELLANTONISure. So one of the things that we saw coming out of San Francisco is a lot of the injuries seemed as if perhaps they could be caused by seat belts and the fact that these are lap belts. And we have Mike in Alexandria, Va., asking about the designs for seat belts in airplanes. Thanks for joining us, Mike.

  • 12:18:14

    MIKESure. Yeah, I was just curious. Lap belts were phased out from cars maybe 30 years ago, and yet they're just seem to be safe on airplanes, and this is not the first accident where somebody had stomach injuries and rib injuries. And I was just kind of -- of course, in first class, they have proper seat belts. So I was just kind of curious what the experts thought about the whole lap belts and really how effective it is.

  • 12:18:38

    GERCHICKYou know, lap belts are effective in many, many, many situations. Particularly you have turbulence tossing people around. And in the normal situation you'd encounter in an aircraft, it's very important, for example, if you're running into significant turbulence that you do stay belted in. When it comes to a major event like this, it's not clear precisely what restraints are going to work.

  • 12:19:01

    GERCHICKThere are -- there have been discussion about shoulder belts to be added to lap belts. The question, again, is how often are you going to encounter that kind of a situation? How -- is that going to constrain the space available on the seat for the -- for individuals? And, of course, we're already at pretty tight seats here. We're kind of reaching the limit of anatomical possibility with some of the seat pitch.

  • 12:19:24

    GERCHICKAt -- there's also -- and in the first-class sections, it's probably because you don't have the restraining effect of seats close ahead of you, which is an issue. I might add, though, that generally the interior of the aircraft are now much more passenger-protective than they used to be. These seats are capable of withstanding 16 Gs of force, which is a tremendous impact. That's part of a rule that came into effect several years ago.

  • 12:19:49

    GERCHICKThey're also less flammable than they were. There are treatments being done. And finally, just to hit off this discussion about the San Francisco situation, the idea of -- the ability to evacuate an aircraft quickly has proven to be a tremendously important lifesaver in lots of accidents. The FAA requires that a big airplane be able to evacuate everybody in 90 seconds with half the exits closed and in the dark. And actually, to be able to get 850 people off of a super jumbo A380 jet in 90 seconds is quite a feat.

  • 12:20:24

    BELLANTONIYeah. And we're going to definitely return to what went right. Tom Haueter, what about the seatbelts issue?

  • 12:20:29

    HAUETERWell, I have to agree with Mark. I mean, they've done a lot of studies, and they found this, you know, departmentalization of the people, that leaning against the seat in front of you and riding the seat down can have more benefit than wearing a shoulder harness, kind of staying lower within, especially if you have a lot of luggage nowadays and they came up -- come out of the baggage compartment and the baggage compartments themselves coming loose.

  • 12:20:51

    HAUETERThe major benefit I see what happened in the accident in San Francisco is what Mark mentioned, those 16g seats. A lot of people were saved because of the incredible energy absorption capability of the modern-seat designs in aircraft. There's a huge amount of vertical load in that accident that was absorbed by the seats, much more than the lateral load of the deceleration as it slid to a stop.

  • 12:21:15

    HAUETERBut, you know, there's been a lot of looks, you know, looking at shoulder harnesses and especially for rear-facing seats and some other things. But the more -- majority of times, the biggest issue I see in aviation is making sure passengers keep their seatbelts on all at times. We see more passenger injuries in turbulence when they're unbelted, and they get bounced around the cabin in -- during the turbulence account.

  • 12:21:40

    BELLANTONIAnd they frequently warn you about that when you're flying. You can join our conversation. Do you research a carrier's safety record before you book that flight? Why or why not? Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Of course, send a tweet to @kojoshow. We will be back after a short break. Stay tuned.

  • 12:23:38

    BELLANTONIWelcome back. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the PBS "NewsHour," sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with aviation security experts about the weekend plane crash at SFO. Mark Gerchick is here with me in the studio. Tom Haueter is out in Colorado. You can always join our conversation. Send an email to kojo@wamu.org. We are hearing from Dave in Reston, Va., who's asking, "Should we be afraid of collisions between manned and unmanned aircraft, particularly if the ground radio link to the unmanned vehicle is lost?"

  • 12:24:09

    GERCHICKWell, you know, the issue of -- about drone aircraft and controlling a drone aircraft is really -- it's a little -- it's a different issue. So, honestly, I can't talk to that one. But I can say that the whole issue about collisions with other aircraft is something that, of course, has been a huge focus, and one in which there has been a huge increase in safety over the last 20 years. The development of so-called collision avoidance systems has been an important -- really important contribution to safety.

  • 12:24:38

    GERCHICKBasically, what happens is if a pilot's flying and he's getting on -- he's on an intersecting course with another aircraft or another aircraft is too close, there's a system, sort of a mini radar in the airplane that basically says -- tells the pilot not just that he's getting too close but what to do, descend or climb and do it, you know, in a rapid fashion. So that's actually been a tremendous improvement in terms of air-to-air collisions.

  • 12:25:01

    BELLANTONITom Haueter, you retired recently from the National Transportation Safety Board. Had -- did that that ever come up in what you looked at?

  • 12:25:07

    HAUETERWell, the Safety Board initially investigated a couple of accidents involving drones, and we do have some issues. Now, I agree completely what's happened in collision avoidance with aircraft, airliners is just incredible. And certainly, there's been a quite a few saves due to that system. There's a lot of work that needs to be done on drones yet.

  • 12:25:28

    HAUETERAnd there's -- I know that there's areas being put together in a country for further testing and evaluation before we take a look at all these. And drones are at many levels. Some of them are just -- look like a model airplane. They don't go that high. The other ones are quite large. But there's a lot more testing and research, I think, needs to be done before they're fully integrated into the airspace system.

  • 12:25:51

    BELLANTONIMark Gerchick, you're the former chief counsel for the Federal Aviation Administration. Modern technology has helped make planes safer, but every plane is not all retrofitted. So how concerned should we be about these older planes that are out there?

  • 12:26:03

    GERCHICKWell, you're right. Planes do need to comply with rules that come into effect when they come into effect. That is they don't -- most rules don't require retrofitting an older aircraft. You know, the proof, though, is in the pudding. We have had just this remarkable string of safe years -- various safe years of flying, and the planes have to be maintained.

  • 12:26:26

    GERCHICKAnd the, you know, what happens with older aircraft is -- and the FAA had came up with a rule fairly recently about this -- is to have a special program that looks at examining them, making sure they're taken care of properly, checking their maintenance more carefully as they get older. So there is an aging aircraft program as it were.

  • 12:26:42

    GERCHICKI should add, though, that the fleets are getting younger, too. In 2008, 2009, the airlines had no money in there, and they were not spending money, the U.S. airlines, on fleet improvements. All those new airplanes were going off to the Middle East and Asia, and that's changing now as the U.S. airlines are buying a lot more new aircraft.

  • 12:27:01

    BELLANTONIYou've both referenced the fact that it was pretty remarkable that the passengers -- the majority of the passengers were able to get off this burning flight in San Francisco without major injury. So we've got a question from David in Dickerson, Md., looking at sort of the passenger behavior when that happened. David, go right ahead.

  • 12:27:19

    DAVIDYeah. Looking at these videos of this accident, a lot of the passengers were wandering around the field with the carry-on bags, and that's absolutely a no-no. And I can't understand how that could happen.

  • 12:27:34

    GERCHICKIt's more than a no-no. It's appalling. The -- can you imagine if you have crowded airplane and people are trying to evacuate, the smoke is starting to occur, and you're seating there, trying to get your bag out of the overhead? I mean, my goodness. Now, that said, I understand that in this crash, a number of the overheads did come unlatched and so forth and that there was a lot of debris and bags sitting around -- falling down into the airplane.

  • 12:27:58

    GERCHICKSo it's possible that somebody was just really dragging a bag that was sitting in his lap off the airplane. It's possible. So I don't want to jump to that conclusion, but you're sure right. That was a pretty amazing thing, to see people with roller bags.

  • 12:28:11

    BELLANTONIWell, it gets a little bit to the human element of it, too. You can give people instructions as much as you want, but they may not follow them. And, you know, we had a tweet from Sarah, who said that extremely kind flight attendants eased her anxiety. And there's been some good reporting out over the last week, you know, flight attendants noting that they are not the first ones off the airplane. So how important is the behavior of the people within the flight who are giving these instructions on safety?

  • 12:28:35

    GERCHICKHugely important. And, you know, we really don't pay attention anymore. We've -- anybody who's flown a lot, I mean, we can literally recite those warnings on our sleep, and we probably don't pay attention. This is a wake-up call. Look, when you get on an airplane, it's going to be very safe. You're really going to have a -- not a problem.

  • 12:28:49

    GERCHICKBut you know what? It doesn't hurt to count the number of rows between you and the exit. It really doesn't, and this can be helpful. So, you know, despite our confidence in the air system and deserved confidence, it doesn't hurt to listen to that warning every once in a while.

  • 12:29:06

    BELLANTONITrue. So, Tom, what happens in the air is just one piece of the safety's picture when it comes to air travel. Has infrastructure on the ground kept pace with the traffic in the air?

  • 12:29:17

    HAUETERI don't know. Say it again. I didn't quite hear you there.

  • 12:29:19

    BELLANTONIHas infrastructure on the ground and those advances, has that kept pace with how flights have advanced in the actual airplane?

  • 12:29:25

    HAUETERWell, I think in terms of what's going on in the airports, you know, absolutely. There's new things going on. There's much more navigation aids happening. So there's a lot of things on the ground that are keeping pace. The fire rescue vehicles of today are much more sophisticated and capable than we've seen before.

  • 12:29:44

    HAUETERWhat you may have seen in the pictures is the arm -- long arms and booms they have to actually penetrate the fuselage and spray, you know, foam inside of a fuselage to put the fire out to help passenger either way are greatly improved. So a lot of things around the airport and the airport environment are much better than they were, you know, 10, 15 years ago.

  • 12:30:04

    HAUETERThere's always room for improvement, of course. But I think, you know, watching new navigation aids coming into effect, they were going more to a satellite navigation system, all those will help, you know, add more layers to redundancy on what -- on top of what's already a safe system.

  • 12:30:20

    GERCHICKAside from the safety -- and I agree with Tom. Aside from the safety angle here though, the infrastructure has been lagging in some ways. And the last time we built a brand new airport -- this is in terms of consumers and delays. The last time we built a brand new airport is about 20 years ago in Denver. Tried to extend that runway out into the San Francisco Bay and that didn't happen, and there was a big effort to do that.

  • 12:30:43

    GERCHICKSo we have some of these issues. And airplanes are getting just bigger. Some of the new aircraft are the size, literally, the length and the wing span of a football field, and that means moving them on these runways requires more time, more tension. And we're going to end up taking some congestion. The FAA slows down the system when there's a suggestion of any kind of dangerous congestion, and that's why we get delays in some cases.

  • 12:31:10

    BELLANTONITom Haueter...

  • 12:31:10

    HAUETERThat's correct.

  • 12:31:10

    BELLANTONI...returning to this idea of passenger responsibility, I mean, are people zoning out when they get the instructions about, you know, make sure to put your mask on and then help others around you? I mean, how important is it that people pay attention, and are people paying attention every time?

  • 12:31:26

    HAUETERYou know, I actually agree with Mark. I mean, how many times I got on an airplane and watched them doing the demonstration, and passengers are asleep, reading a book or doing something else and paying no attention at all. Your duty to pay attention -- even if you fly a lot, once again, you're counting seat rows. Absolutely, I agree with that 100 percent. Even, you know, the clothes you wear.

  • 12:31:49

    HAUETERThink about if you were in an accident what clothes you want to have on to escape with, comfortable shoes, running if you will, wearing natural fibers that won't melt under heat. There's things you can do to protect yourself. And also go back -- and I do agree actually that, you know, whatever you've got with you is not as important as your life and those around you. Just leave your bags, leave anything, and just get out of the aircraft as fast as you can. And...

  • 12:32:17

    BELLANTONIMark Gerchick.

  • 12:32:18

    GERCHICKI agree with Tom.

  • 12:32:21

    BELLANTONIAnd, Mark, you write in your book "Full Upright and Locked Position," a little bit about pilots and sort of, you know, who they are, their demographics, the majority of them are white males and why that matters. And, you know, when there is a crash, usually the captain rightly or wrongly is the one who's coming under scrutiny. So tell us a little bit about the role of that cockpit dysfunction. And...

  • 12:32:42

    GERCHICKWell, that's an interesting area. There's a term -- a buzzword in the industry for this. It's called cockpit resource management. And this is actually a very, very important issue. It's a rather fundamental issue. It doesn't deal with the mechanics of the airplane exactly. It deals with the way that the pilot and the co-pilot are interacting in the cockpit and how both of them were interacting with the sophisticated machine that is the airplane.

  • 12:33:07

    GERCHICKAnd, you know, we have numerous -- well, not numerous, but there have been -- where there have been air crashes in the last 20, 30, 40 years, many of them had had to do with a captain not listening to, for example, a first officer who had a question or a concern or a reservation. Sometimes, the first officer who's maybe more junior doesn't want to question the captain too much and -- or want -- doesn't want to repeatedly say, you know, this doesn't feel right to me.

  • 12:33:33

    GERCHICKOne of the big crashes here in Washington, the Air Florida crash in 1990 was the classic where the co-pilot basically saw that the aircraft that was leaving Washington National Airport attempting to take off, that the throttles -- the thrust seemed wrong, the indicators seemed wrong. It didn't seem like it really had the thrust that the indicator said it did. And he kind of questioned the pilot, but nonetheless, they took off, they stalled, and they crashed.

  • 12:33:59

    GERCHICKAnd so that whole issue about interaction also with the aircraft. Are we really look -- is everybody really aware of what the airplane is doing at any given time? If you have a flight management system computer that has various modes of operating, does the pilot know exactly what mode it's operating in? These are big issues, and they may actually be issues that arise in this particular investigation regarding Asiana.

  • 12:34:22

    BELLANTONIYeah. So, Tom Haueter, you know, is it tough to regulate these relationships? There are things that technology just can't fix, right?

  • 12:34:30

    HAUETERWell, you know, this is a big issue nowadays in that the amount of automation and the amount of complexity aircraft, most of the time, the pilots have now become more systems monitors than they actually are flying the airplane. And so we changed the paradigm of the old days. Pilots always flew airplanes, and they always knew every piece of it. Now, they have the airplanes flying under autopilot most times. You have auto throttles. You have other systems.

  • 12:34:58

    HAUETERThere's much more monitoring to do. And everything works most, you know, incredibly well, and it works almost 99.99 percent of the time. So how do we train pilots to react when something doesn't work, especially after, oh, 20 years and your 15,000 hours of flying, suddenly something happens that they've absolutely never seen before? It's a constant training problem.

  • 12:35:23

    BELLANTONIWe have a pilot on the phone here with us, Dave from Alexandria, Va. Tell us about your experience, and you have a question.

  • 12:35:31

    DAVEYes. I'm a low-time pilot. Of 40 years, I've only accumulated 300 hours. But I'm interested, since we have four pilots on that flight deck -- one set's the relief pilots -- who's the pilot in command? The pilot who was flying the airplane on their approach, just because he had 10,000 hours doesn't make him the pilot in command.

  • 12:35:57

    DAVEAnd the man in the right seat also, what's going on with the checklist? There's -- from the outer marker in, they're supposed to be calling out speeds and altitudes. And even though they didn't have a glide slope, they still had to localize or so they're supposed to be paying attention to the radio navigation direction to the runway.

  • 12:36:17

    BELLANTONIYeah.

  • 12:36:18

    HAUETERWell, if I can, I'll try that one. The -- well, I understand, there were three pilots in the cockpit. One -- the other fourth one, I'm hearing now from the NTSB, was actually in the cabin. The captain of the flight, who's in the left seat, was the pilot in command, and there's a -- now an instructor, if you will, senior person in the right seat. The captain was the pilot in command. Now, in terms of the checklist and what happened there, I -- obviously, we don't have the full NTSB transcript of the cockpit voice recorder tape yet.

  • 12:36:55

    HAUETERSo we don't know exactly when they did their checklist and who was following and whatever. And there's a lot of questions here obviously. Someone should have been monitoring air speed, and we don't know what happened there. So there's a lot of questions yet to be developed during the investigation. However, the captain should be -- the captain is the pilot in command of this flight. And I'm sure the NTSB is having a lot of discussions with him about exactly what happened.

  • 12:37:21

    BELLANTONIAnd sticking with you, Tom Haueter, retired from the National Transportation Safety Board, is it surprising that so much information has been released from the NTSB already? And what does that really mean for the investigation?

  • 12:37:32

    HAUETERThis is very typical for the NTSB. The board tries to give out all factual information as soon as it can. One, A, has to be factual information and we try to verify it, make it available. And that's been the board's policy for years and years. Now, what we don't get into or -- I keep using we. I've retired not that long ago.

  • 12:37:53

    HAUETERWhat the board tries not to do is speculate on what happened or the why, that yes, the airspeed was at this speed. But we've got to look into what -- how did that happen? Why was it allowed to get to that speed? What happened? What didn't happen? All of the systems, people interface, and figuring out the why of that is going to take some time.

  • 12:38:16

    HAUETERThat's going to be the daunting task of the investigation, even though we're lucky here. We have the flight crew to talk to, we have cockpit voice recorder and flight deck recorder. But still, piecing together and really understanding the why of it and then trying to prevent another similar accident, that's going to take some time.

  • 12:38:34

    BELLANTONIMark Gerchick.

  • 12:38:34

    GERCHICKLet me just add to that. Yeah, 'cause I agree with Tom and I think from the perspective of a safety expert at the NTSB, that's -- the idea of giving out as much information as possible, as soon as possible, makes a lot of sense. And the public does want to know after all. We have this relationship with flying, which is more than just factual. It involves our emotions and our visceral real feelings about flying and everything else and fears. And so we do want to know when an air crash happens, what's going on. Why did that happen? Is that going to happen to me?

  • 12:39:02

    GERCHICKBut the pilots make a point here, the Airline Pilot Association, some others are saying, you know, are we giving out a little too much information, sort of piecemeal here, in a way that, while safety experts can understand it, the general public may put undue emphasis on particular pieces of information and may jump to conclusions. And, you know, there's a balance to be reached here. So, you know, we don't necessarily need to know about the results of every single interview of every pilot.

  • 12:39:32

    BELLANTONIRight.

  • 12:39:32

    GERCHICKIt might be better to wait a little bit and try to put it all together in a context that both can understand better.

  • 12:39:37

    BELLANTONIYeah. And you can join our conservation. Tell us what you want to know, how much information is too much information about a plane crash. Give us a call at 1800-433-8850. You can always email kojo@wamu.org. Get in touch through our Facebook page or send tweets to @kojoshow. When we come back from a short break, we're going to discuss this crash up in Alaska also happening this week. I'm Christina Bellantoni, sitting in for Kojo. We'll be right back.

  • 12:41:42

    BELLANTONIWelcome back. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the "PBS NewsHour," sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Mark Gerchick and Tom Haueter about airlines safety. If you'd like to join our conversation, call 1-800-433-8850. So a question about flights that are based overseas -- this is what happened in the San Francisco cash -- crash -- when does the case -- what kind of interaction is there between agencies from each government, and are international carriers as safe as U.S. airlines?

  • 12:42:10

    GERCHICKWell, there's typically a lot of interaction. We coordinate -- the FAA tends to coordinate closely and so does the NTSB with foreign civil aviation authorities. But in terms of relative risk and safety, the analysis has generally been, look, if you're flying in the United States, Western Europe and most of the advanced Asian countries, you're basically -- your chances are relatively equal. They're very, very, very safe, and so you're one in 10 million or so. The global average is more like one in two million, as I understand it. That is your risk of being involved in a fatal accident.

  • 12:42:43

    GERCHICKAnd in some places, some parts of the world, and I have to say Africa is one of them, there is a -- you have higher risk. And partly, that's due to the problems of air traffic control in Africa, where there isn't much between North Africa and South Africa. Whether it's north of Zimbabwe, South Africa and into the Sahara and so forth, there's very little air traffic control. But -- so, you know, in general, if you're talking about developed countries, the first world, you're talking about similar safety rates.

  • 12:43:15

    BELLANTONIAnd, Tom Haueter, from NTSB -- retired from the NTSB, you want to weigh in on that?

  • 12:43:21

    HAUETERYes. You know, I would agree that you take a look at most of the developed countries, the safety rate is about the same. It's really Africa -- inside of Africa, there are some issues. There's no doubt about it. Weather reporting, air traffic, some of the aircraft oversight issues are there. But for most of the time when you're flying with a major airline anywhere in the world, it's a very, very safe operation.

  • 12:43:45

    HAUETERAnd we work with our counterparts a lot. They're trying to improve safety, we work both safety initiatives throughout the world. And everybody -- no one wants an accident. That's the key to it. And we're all doing our best to prevent an accident.

  • 12:44:01

    BELLANTONIAnd we had an emailer sending an email to kojo@wamu.org from Great Falls, Va., asking specifically about this and maintenance at these locations outside the United States, you know, how regulated is that.

  • 12:44:14

    GERCHICKThe issue about maintenance has become more important recently. Indeed, as aircraft become more complicated, maintenance is no longer just tightening the bolts. It's, you know, we're talking about very sophisticated avionics. The question here is really about oversight of maintenance. The FAA licenses maintenance operations and oversees them and regulates them. And there are only so many FAA investigators and there are lots of maintenance bases.

  • 12:44:41

    GERCHICKThe airlines trying to save -- trying to really be as efficient as possible and have looked at maintenance as a major cost area, and they have been trying to find ways to basically how maintenance done in places where it's less expensive, mostly in the United States, in non-union maintenance bases but also some of it abroad.

  • 12:45:01

    GERCHICKSome of the foreign maintenance bases are terrific, in Hong Kong, in Germany and other places. And then there are others that have -- there have been some real questions about the ability of the number -- the ability of the FAA to actually oversee carefully and make the kind of required visits to all of these maintenance bases has been raised.

  • 12:45:19

    BELLANTONIA lot of people are joining our conversation and asking about the role of children and flying with children. Leslie from Laurel, Md. emailed, "I was curious if you got any tips on safety when flying with lap infants or children. The San Francisco crash got me thinking a lot about how best to protect them." We have Jillian on Twitter asking a similar question, "Are our lap babies safe?" And Sarah in Springfield, Va. has a question about unaccompanied minors as well. Go ahead, Sarah.

  • 12:45:44

    SARAHHi there. You know, we're a Foreign Service family. We fly the kids unaccompanied quite a lot, and I'm just -- you know, they're teenagers. They don't always pay attention to me or anybody else. But what are some things that we should be thinking about teaching the kids or talking to the kids about to prepare them in the event that they're in a situation like this and they don't have an adult or guardian with them to kind of guide them through that kind of a situation?

  • 12:46:12

    GERCHICKWell, this isn't an area that I know much about. Maybe Tom has a thought on that.

  • 12:46:16

    HAUETERWell, you know, certainly I would go back in terms of the lap children. Definitely, every child should be restrained. I mean, we restrain children in cars and with car seats and everything else. I'm absolutely against the idea of trying to hold on to your child in an accident, and I realized there's a monetary issue that goes with this and other pieces that happen.

  • 12:46:39

    HAUETERBut, you know, definitely, you know, I would be 100 percent in favor of -- that all children need to wear a seatbelt and be restrained with a car seat or something else while flying. Now, in terms of unescorted children, what I've seen a lot of is the flight attendants usually give them a lot of special care. They know where they are. I've seen cases where they position them closer to where the flight attendant is so the event -- something does happen, she can kind of help escort the child out.

  • 12:47:10

    HAUETERAnd I've also seen cases where other passengers have been asked, you know, hey, you know, keep your eye out on this child, because, certainly, there are a lot of unaccompanied children flying nowadays. That does happen. And I think, you know, the parents should also be aware that -- keep their child informed. Get them the same information about, you know, hey, pay attention to the guidance provided. Once again, look for the exits just in case, and be aware. And some kids are actually extraordinarily good at this.

  • 12:47:44

    BELLANTONIYeah. Now, you can join our conversation at 800-433-8850. Francis in Herndon, Va., has a question about sort of, again, these human factors in flying. Go ahead, Francis.

  • 12:47:58

    FRANCISYes. Thanks for taking my call. Very interesting conversation today. You know, it looks like we're going to focus on human factors because it looks like the NTSB has got all the technical, you know, data that they're hanging their hat on. Of course, I've seen situations where the captain's speedo system was showing a different airspeed than the first officer. So that might come out later on.

  • 12:48:26

    FRANCISBut right now, we need to have harmonization in the international regulations because the FAA and the NTSB couldn't even take a blood test out of these guys, you know? Talk about human factors. That's one of the big thing. The other one is the Korean, you know, culture of hierarchy is -- that's anti CRM. You know, nobody questions the captain over there in those types of culture. So that's my concern.

  • 12:48:59

    GERCHICKI can speak to the second one of those. You know, there is a very interesting piece by Malcolm Gladwell a number of years ago where he talked about the cultural aspect of air crashes. And there is a question. Look, in very hierarchical societies, there's a tendency for junior people not to question senior people.

  • 12:49:16

    GERCHICKAnd that may have contributed to an air crash actually involving Korean Air in Korean Air Flight 801 years ago on which there was that kind of a hesitant interaction with a pilot who insisted that he had found a glide slope in Guam and actually hadn't. On the issue of harmonization of international and blood testing issue, that's when I guess Tom might have a thought on from the NTSB perspective. It wouldn't be an FAA issue exactly.

  • 12:49:44

    HAUETERWell, a couple of things and you brought up -- actually excellent, the -- from my point of view, all accidents are human performance accidents. You just don't know where that might be. Sometimes it could be the pilots, it could be mechanics, it could be controllers, but they're all somehow human performance events that they can take a look at.

  • 12:50:04

    HAUETERIn terms of blood testing, that's a difficult issue because these aircrafts are basically foreign authorities involved here. This is the property of foreign countries. They come into our country, and there's a lot of problems in just saying we wanted to do, you know, blood test and everything else on foreign pilots and foreign crews. What I have seen in the past is in most cases, the foreign crews are more than happy to provide testing, do a lot of blood tests or breathalyzer because they want to prove they weren't.

  • 12:50:40

    HAUETERI'm not sure what went wrong in this case. That'll be interesting to see what comes out of all the detail. But it's very difficult in the safety board even with a U.S. crew can't demand toxicological test done. We -- I mean, for a -- excuse me -- on a live crew, we can't demand blood and alcohol to be drawn. Normally, the airline, the FAA will do that. On foreign crews, it's a different problem.

  • 12:51:08

    BELLANTONIMark Gerchick, you write in your book "Full Upright and Locked Position" that there's actually a higher crash rate among regional carriers, and we saw this fatal crash Sunday in Alaska involved an air taxi. I'll post this question to Tom actually. You know, is there a different between large commercial flights and smaller carriers?

  • 12:51:27

    GERCHICKWell, I'll just interject. There is a statistical difference between the major aircraft -- major airlines and the regional carriers. The air taxis are in a different category from regional carriers, so people should understand that. They're on demand carriers. Regional carriers are scheduled airlines but smaller ones generally, and they often are contracting with the major airlines using their logos and various other advertising, marketing and so forth.

  • 12:51:55

    GERCHICKTheir safety rate is what? The safety rate of all scheduled airlines in the United States is very, very, very good. So -- but it's not statistically as good on the commuter carriers. Now, that's been an issue in -- and there've been at least a couple of major improvements in the regulations that I think are going to add to commuters airline safety.

  • 12:52:20

    GERCHICKOne is the fatigue rule, that the so-called flight and duty time rule which the FAA has just put out and will soon be coming to effect, put out a couple of years ago, that will increase the amount of rest time that pilots have. And this is an issue for commuter pilots who fly in and out of smaller -- in and out of a congested airspace and quite often lots of takeoffs and landings, and there's a fatigue issue there.

  • 12:52:45

    GERCHICKThe other issue is an experience question. There's a rule that's about to come into effect, I think actually in about a month or three weeks, which will require all commercial air pilots on major airlines to have 1,500 hours of experience. Now, that -- with some exceptions of modifications -- and currently, that's not the case with all first officers -- that is co-pilots on the regional airlines -- some of whom only have to have 250 hours of experience.

  • 12:53:14

    BELLANTONIWe have another private pilot on the line. Kip in Charleston, W.Va., you've got some thoughts on these crashes.

  • 12:53:22

    KIPHello. It seems to me in my training that the pilot is supposed to have his hand on the throttle when landing in case he needs to initiate a go-around. And in this case, it seems like to me, from what I read this morning, that the pilots did not do this properly. And I think this whole thing was totally preventable. I mean, what do you need pilots for if they're not going to be there in the cockpit and be aware of the angle of the planes coming in and the speed of the plane?

  • 12:54:03

    BELLANTONITom Haueter, what do you think about that?

  • 12:54:05

    HAUETERWell, it's certainly, you know, one of the duties of the pilots is to monitor airspeed. And the issue we have here is that, normally, with air carrier operation, one pilot is, you know, looking out the window -- normally the flying pilot is looking out, has his hands on the controls, hands on the throttles and the other pilot is monitoring airspeed. What happened here, obviously, I don't know yet because NTSB is going to -- got more research to do.

  • 12:54:31

    HAUETERHands on the throttle is an interesting situation and that mostly large aircraft have auto throttles. And the pilots will engage the speed they want and the aircraft will maintain that speed until the pilot selects it into idle for landing. So what happened here, I don't know. But clearly, you know, airspeed wasn't monitored. It's the best I can say.

  • 12:54:57

    BELLANTONISo one of the things, Mark, that we're seeing shares of Asiana Airlines, which is that crash in San Francisco, are down after the crash. And an event like this is just one factor that plays into industry economics. So how does that figure into safety? You've seen airlines say that's a reason why they don't have shoulder harnesses, for example.

  • 12:55:13

    GERCHICKWell, yeah. Look, economics does play a role. But I must say, in general, I am not aware of any circumstance in which a major airline has cut back on safety because of economic problems. It's just -- I just haven't seen it happen. And you can imagine -- even from an economic standpoint, as you point out, an air crash is worth millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars to prevent.

  • 12:55:35

    GERCHICKSo it's -- from even an economic standpoint, there's not going to be any cutback on safety protections. Now, you know, that said, there are safety issues that the government and regulators would say are real safety issues, that the industry is opposed strongly on the grounds of cost. One of them is this fatigue rule, for example.

  • 12:55:54

    GERCHICKRequiring pilots to have more rest or more rest time is expensive. And that means that the airlines have to hire more pilots, and so they vigorously resisted the rule for quite a while. But nonetheless, the FAA, after modifying it and working with the industry to some degree, said, sorry, we think this is too important. And, in fact, NTSB have pilot fatigue as one of its very top safety issues for many years.

  • 12:56:17

    HAUETERExactly. I agree that no airline wants an accident. It's extraordinarily bad for their bottom line, and they know this. And so there is a balance they try to accomplish between, you know, cost and -- but they'll never give up safety because they know that one accident can have major impacts, not only the costs of the accident itself, but just the bad publicity and everything else that goes with it.

  • 12:56:45

    BELLANTONIMm hmm. Thanks to you both for a very interesting conversation in the wake of several plane crashes that we've been seeing this week. Mark Gerchick, aviation consultant, former chief counsel for the Federal Aviation Administration, the author of "Full Upright and Locked Position: Not-So-Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today." And thanks, Tom Haueter, for joining us from Colorado.

  • 12:57:03

    BELLANTONIYou are an aviation safety consultant who retired last year from the National Transportation Safety Board. I'm Christina Bellantoni, sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thank you for listening. And coming up in the next hour, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is in hot water over a business loan from a political donor. Plus, for Food Wednesday, what's polite when it comes to restaurant reservations.

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