Flying and the Shortcomings of Government
As many of you doubtless know, I’m a staunch supporter of codified safety standards. At the same time, I’m a skeptic of human nature, and take as an article of faith that all too often in order for people to do the right thing instead of the more expedient or financially attractive thing, they need to be required to do so. It’s the way the world works.
The reason we so rarely have accidents in American air carriers these days isn’t because we let the airlines do whatever they want: it’s because of regulation and enforcement combined with a talented, focused and engaged airline community — the latter thanks largely to the pilots who work for the airlines, by the way, and not vice versa. The answer is not deregulation but smarter, smaller, and better focused regulation, and that is a possible dream.
That all said, there are built in shortcomings to government, which include (but are certainly not limited to) a love of documentation out of all proportion to its usefulness. We as citizens fall victim to this every time we take out a mortgage or apply for a passport, but these hassles pale in comparison to what’s happening in Wichita, Dallas, Vero Beach and other places where companies build airplanes. The cost and schedule uncertainty of certification is killing them.
Because of outrageously detailed FAA oversight structures, certification has become so burdensome that much of the cost of an airplane program isn’t in dreaming up innovative safety systems but in getting government approval for things that we already know are safe. Take for example a manufacturer that decides to make improvements to an existing model to take advantage of safety advances: in such a case the FAA can require the entire airplane — and not just the new features — to adhere to the latest and most burdensome certification standards even if there is no indication that any of those systems were compromising safety in any respect. It’s insanity.
If that weren’t bad enough, the economic downturn has made things worse. With FAA staffing decimated by budget cuts and its resources stretched the breaking point, the combination of increased oversight and decreased oversight capacity has manufacturers on the ropes.
The solution to our current death by paperwork world is an easy one to imagine — focus on real safety issues and cut out the red tape — and a fiendishly difficult one to enact. We need to envision a world of safety regulation whose guiding principle is safety and not regulation and strive unyieldingly to make that vision a reality. Stranger things have happened.
To get there, we need to require people — FAA people — to do the right thing. As I explained above, that means that we need to mandate that the agency whose chief aim is air safety focus on safety instead of documentation. Do I have faith that this will happen? Hardly. Just hope that it can.
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