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It’s Too Thin

When the horrifying accident that befell United Airlines Flight 811 is definitively sorted out, the American air-transport system’s real strengths and increasingly threatening weaknesses should be brought into much sharper focus.

At the moment, federal officials believe that the incident probably began with a failure of the Boeing 747’s cargo door. Investigators strongly suspect that, as the New Zealand-bound jumbo jet climbed toward cruising altitude 100 miles out of Honolulu early Friday, the door opened and was ripped upward, taking with it a 10-foot-by-40-foot section of the plane’s outer skin. Nine passengers sucked from the aircraft are missing and presumed dead.

Two sets of observations are suggested by these events, the first more comforting than the second: Only a marvel of ingenuity and technical resilience could have suffered such an accident and remained aloft. That the plane involved was nearly 20 years old, had made more than 15,000 takeoffs and landings and had logged almost 60,000 hours in the air is further evidence of the reason why U.S. aircraft manufacturers are the global leaders in their field. Similarly, the courage and skill shown by Flight 811’s pilot, crew and flight attendants were heroic. Clearly American aviation has thrown up men--and women--to match its machines.

It is far less clear that the federal regulators charged with maintaining an environment in which both man and machine can operate safely are a match for either one. The case of these troublesome cargo doors is an instructive example of why.

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Suspicions that something might be amiss with the cargo-bay hatches on older 747s first were aroused in March, 1987, when a door opened in flight on a plane operated by Pan American World Airways. As Friday’s incident seems to show, that can be a life-threatening event. But it took the Federal Aviation Administration fully 16 months to order operators of such older aircraft to modify their cargo doors. Even then the airlines were given 18 months to comply with the directive.

In other words, the FAA was willing to allow nearly three years to pass from the day the problem first surfaced until the day it was solved. The plane involved in Friday’s fatal accident was one of those aging aircraft covered by the FAA’s order, but, like 18 other 747s still being flown by United, its cargo doors had not been modified because the directive gave the airline until December of this year to do so.

Unfortunately, this sort of torpor is characteristic of a federal agency that repeatedly has shown itself to be understaffed, underfunded and overly deferential to the industry that it regulates. These deficiencies have become all the more acute as the complexity of the air-transport system has increased in the 10 years since airline deregulation. Chief among these complexities are the special problems posed by aging planes--like Flight 811.

Airlines care about safety; United, for example, is a justly acknowledged leader in the field and has given special attention to the maintenance of older aircraft. But even the best-intentioned airline also must respond to competitive pressures, like cost.

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In such an environment the FAA ought to be an unswerving guarantor of public safety. If more money is needed to do the job, it should be found; if more people are needed, they should be hired; if more aggressive regulation is required, it should be undertaken. Congress and the Administration bear equal responsibility in this matter.

Skill and luck kept the tragedy of Flight 811 from being worse. That’s a very thin safety net, indeed.


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