Crash Course

By Matthew L. Wald ’76 / May / June 2004
June 15th, 2007
The Plane Truth: Airline Crashes, the Media, and Transportation Policy by Roger W. Cobb and David M. Primo ’98, ’98 AM (Brookings).

Alfred Kahn, the Cornell economist Jimmy Carter brought in to deregulate the airlines, said he knew little about aviation; to him, planes were “marginal costs with wings.” Now come Roger W. Cobb, professor of political science at Brown, and David M. Primo, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Rochester, for whom planes appear to be issues with wings.

Professor Kahn and the economists, it turned out, brought a great deal to the aviation industry, mostly in the form of deregulation. What do the political scientists bring? Their book, The Plane Truth: Airline Crashes, the Media, and Transportation Policy, surveys twenty-eight crashes and focuses mainly on three: USAir 427, in 1994, and ValuJet 592 and TWA 800, both in 1996. The political scientists are interested less in what made these planes crash or what could be done to prevent similar accidents than in how various individuals, airlines, and government agencies reacted to the events, furthering their own goals, defending themselves, and advancing their reputations and power.

On the plus side, Cobb and Primo argue that the government’s pursuit of airplane safety is too reactive, shaped inordinately by the news media. They challenge the belief that airplane engineering and safety are iterative, with successive improvements driven by bad experience. Instead, they hold that aviation safety and engineering are driven by media stories of dramatic airline tragedies. “We believe that notions of safety should reflect overall crash risks and structural problems in the system rather than be dominated by specific crashes or high-profile events,” Cobb and Primo write. “It is important to view a plane crash as a political event with an intrinsic human interest angle.”

There are problems with this approach. For one, the authors seem to have a rather narrow view of what air safety regulators do, perhaps because the book is largely constructed from an analysis of newspaper articles. (Full disclosure: I wrote some of those articles.) There is a circularity of logic here: if you rely on newspaper reports to chronicle the Federal Aviation Administration’s actions, it’s easy to conclude that the agency is acting in response to newspapers. However, the agency takes many actions that general-interest newspapers do not cover, and because these were not reported in newspapers, the primary source material for The Plane Truth, they’re largely missing from the book’s analysis.

Cobb and Primo argue that the FAA, by responding to problems raised in media reports—hazardous cargo on ValuJet, an electrical spark in the fuel system on TWA 800, and a design flaw and mechanical problem in a hydraulic part on USAir 427—overlooks more significant risks. But for the most part, the authors do not identify these more important problems. They mention the risk of runway collisions, which is already a major area of focus for the FAA, as reported in newspapers. And the authors are too often sloppy with facts. They confuse ValuJet with USAir, for example, misstate both the reason for the eventual grounding of ValuJet and the airline’s fate, and misrepresent the role of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Unfortunately, the book does not explore the questions that Congress, the FAA, and the NTSB might like political scientists to help them with. Cobb and Primo note that the FAA sometimes seems captive to the companies it regulates, but the authors don’t present a clear cure. Similarly, they fail to explore the extent to which the effectiveness of air safety agencies is impaired by their bureaucracies, by the relationships of political appointees to professional staff, and by the agencies’ competition with the airlines for scarce talent. Who will answer those questions? The reporters in whom they have so little faith?

Matthew L. Wald is a reporter for the New York Times, where he has covered transportation safety since 1994.
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May / June 2004