Since the beginning of 2008, the three broadcast networks have reported on a British Airways crash at London’s Heathrow Airport, pilots falling asleep on a Go! Airlines flight in Hawaii, the in-air death of an American Airlines passenger and, most recently, concerns about outdated inspections on several U.S.-based airlines.
The airline industry is a consistent target for anti-business journalists, and those journalists have used these opportunities to bash airlines in spite of the relative safety of air travel. The Boeing 777, until the crash at Heathrow, had a “perfect safety record.” The passenger who died on American Airlines had diabetes, high blood pressure and a history of heart disease.
And recent safety concerns surrounding Southwest Airlines were largely the fault of the Federal Aviation Administration, which knew about the lapsed inspections. Yet the networks took their time getting around to criticism of the FAA, instead seizing yet another opportunity to bash an industry already suffering through bankruptcies and pressure from rising fuel costs.
Journalists have accused the airline industry of “mishandled maintenance” and “being “tempted to cut corners on maintenance.” They have reported “sheer misery” for “millions of passengers [who] suffer through record delays, cancellations and lost baggage” and warned potential passengers to “expect the worst.”
“You know, recently it seems every day there’s a problem the way this country’s fleet of aircraft is inspected to make sure that those planes are safe,” ABC’s David Kerley said on “Good Morning America” March 27.
On March 6 the Federal Aviation Administration announced it would fine Southwest Airlines $10 million for allowing planes to fly that had missed some inspections. The coverage from the three major network news outlets – ABC, CBS and NBC – focused on Southwest’s responsibility for safety but either ignored or downplayed the FAA’s failures, even though the agency admitted fault.
Kerley, in his March 27 “Good Morning America” segment, only mentioned that “some in Congress and experts” were beginning to ask questions about the FAA’s handling of the problem. Two FAA whistle-blowers sparked congressional questioning when they accused the agency of looking the other way on Southwest’s inspections.
Some experts cited by the networks were bolder in their support for the FAA. On the CBS “Early Show” March 27, Flight Safety Foundation President William Voss commended the FAA for “doing a good job” keeping an eye on airline safety. Anchor Chris Wragge let Voss’ comment go unchallenged in spite of the fact the FAA had acknowledged three weeks earlier that it “broke their own rules by allowing those [Southwest] flights to continue,” as Katie Couric stated on the March 7 “CBS Evening News.”
CBS “Early Show” reporter Mark Strassmann pinned the Southwest problems on the airline, saying it “was caught flying 46 planes overdue for safety inspection.” He mentioned that “FAA inspectors knew it,” but didn’t note that Southwest had told the FAA the inspections were overdue and the FAA didn’t bother to follow up.
Strassmann said with the nation’s “aging airline fleets, some critics say upkeep is too critical to let airlines police themselves.” But the federal agency assigned to police the industry has been falling asleep at the yoke, too.
FAA Acting Administrator Robert Sturgell has been in damage control mode, hosting press conferences and conducting interviews with media outlets to apologize for the agency’s mishandling of the inspection process. But as recently as April 2, the CBS “Evening News” ignored Sturgell’s admission of guilt.
“’I mean, I’d much rather be here today talking to you about things we found and things we are correcting than for all of us to be in a field, at an accident site, talking about what happened,’” the “Evening News” quoted Sturgell saying during a press conference. It didn’t mention his apologies or even imply that FAA was remotely responsible for the oversight.
At least one expert wasn’t afraid to criticize the federal government. ABC aviation analyst John Nance said on the March 27 “Good Morning America” that the FAA “pulled a boner with Southwest when they came out and decided to try to ask for huge fines rather than admit that the FAA had problems in the way that they’d been dealing with Southwest.”
Even after Sturgell’s open criticism of the agency he heads, and after FAA whistle-blowers testified before Congress, networks still highlighted complaints about the airlines.
“Flying these days is no fun,” Lisa Stark said on ABC’s “World News Sunday” April 6. “Customer complaints skyrocketed in 2007. Delays and cancellations are at the top of the list.”
“All this at a time when a number of carriers have had to ground planes for mishandled maintenance,” Stark said, adding that “the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees the industry, is being blasted for falling down on the job.”
Are Airlines Safe?
But Stark didn’t mention the airlines’ strong safety records, a part of the story that often was left on the cutting room floor.
Miles O’Brien suggested on CNN “American Morning” March 27 that “we should all be concerned that the airlines, with all the pressures they face for profitability and the cost of fuel, might be tempted to cut corners on maintenance.” But the implication that airlines can’t be trusted to ensure safety because they’re profit-driven doesn’t mesh with the facts.
Chris Wragge suggested a similar connection on “The Early Show” on CBS March 27. “An added concern is that the airlines are under pressure to cut costs,” he reported in a segment on American and Delta Airlines canceling flights to run wiring inspections.
In October 2007, ABC’s “World News with Charles Gibson” beat up on airlines for finally reporting profits. “Airlines enjoyed their best quarter in seven years between April and June,” Gibson reported, “with profit margins of almost 9 percent.”
Gibson didn’t note the financial turmoil airlines have experienced since the terrorist attacks of September 2001. And by O’Brien’s logic, with those profits should come an increase in accidents – after all, if they’re making money, airlines must be “cutting corners” somewhere.
But even O’Brien acknowledged that “we’re in the midst of an incredibly safe period of time for American aviation” and “something about the system must be working.”
Even the FAA-praising William Voss of the Flight Safety Foundation recognized in an April 3 news release that “the commercial aviation system in the United States is the safest in the world” and “both the FAA and the industry should be justifiably proud of their record.”
Voss also told Wragge on the March 27 “Early Show,” “We can’t necessarily say that economic pressure equals safety problems, but it’s something to keep an eye on.”
The last major airline incident in the United States occurred Aug. 27, 2006, when Comair Flight 5191 ran off the end of the runway in Lexington, Ky., killing 49 people. The crash was attributed to pilot error for not communicating the proper location with FAA flight controllers.
What makes airline safety incidents so newsworthy is that they are so rare. While flight hours have almost doubled in the last 20 years, the total number of accidents has remained roughly the same.
The accident rate has plunged from 0.31 accidents per 100,000 flight hours in 1987 to 0.16 accidents per 100,000 flight hours in 2006 – the lowest rate in the last 20 years, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Excluding years that saw major “illegal acts” involving airplanes – like 2001 – aviation accidents have averaged 72 deaths per year since 1989. Yet the media often fail to provide context and remind viewers how safe air travel is.
History of Airline Attacks
The networks’ hostility toward airlines didn’t start in 2008. Journalists have been attacking the industry for years, for everything from ticket prices to flight delays to profits. Throughout 2007 the media blamed airlines for creating “unfriendly skies.”
But problems like flight delays, which the media often blame on airlines themselves, are more the fault of the FAA. “The main cause of delays is the decades-long inability of the FAA to construct an [air traffic control] system that meets the demands of the air transportation system,” the aviation consulting firm The Boyd Group says on its Web site.
“The FAA has consistently wasted billions over the past 25 years, often on programs that only get so far and are then cancelled,” according to the Boyd Group.