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Just how safe are the friendly skies?

Air traffic control might be headed for a bumpy ride. TODAY travel editor Peter Greenberg investigates American aviation safety and why the airline system might be less secure than you think.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

November 12, 2001. An American Airlines A-300 flight from JFK to the Dominican Republic crashes shortly after takeoff, killing all aboard. Then, in August 2006, a Comair flight crashes on takeoff in Lexington, Ky. Forty-nine people are killed.

Stunning headlines. And yet the United States is currently experiencing one of the most remarkable periods of air safety in history — with those two crashes as exceptions, not another single fatal commercial aviation accident in more than six years. Then consider these numbers: Every day in the U.S., more than 33,000 scheduled commercial flights are in the air. Nothing happened yesterday. Nothing happened today. And chances are more than just good that nothing is going to happen tomorrow.

Thus it might be easy to presume that no air disaster news is good news. Not necessarily.

A downward economy, an aging aircraft fleet, airlines in, or flirting with, bankruptcy; add to that an air traffic control system that's understaffed, underequipped, and a federal regulatory agency recently called on the carpet for not properly performing maintenance inspections. Is it the recipe for a perfect aviation-disaster storm?

Acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration Robert Sturgell claims that while the system isn't perfect, the industry's record speaks for itself.

"We handled nearly three-quarters of a billion passengers last year without a single on-board fatality," he says. And yet some experts claim that these mounting pressures on commercial aviation are weakening the system to the breaking point. "No accidents does not mean that you have a safe system," says Michael Barr, former director of aviation and safety programs at the University of Southern California. "Currently our system is beginning to look kind of frayed at the seams."

The first concerns on experts' radar? Air traffic control and runaway incursions.

First, staffing issues at air traffic control centers and airport towers. In 1981, when the air traffic controllers went on strike, former President Ronald Reagan fired them, and hired replacements. It's now 27 years later, and many of those controllers have either retired or are on the verge of leaving the tower. Patrick Forrey, head of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, claims that high attrition and burnout levels, coupled with the FAA moving too slowly to replace those controllers, has created a potentially catastrophic situation for the flying public.

"They are working overtime, double shifts, things they really shouldn't do in this high-stress environment," he charges. "This is a perfect storm. The staffing levels we have for certified veteran controllers is as low as it was in 1992," he says, "and yet the system has obviously grown in those 16 years, and at some point it's going to break."

The FAA counters that it has nearly 2,000 controllers coming on board this year, enough to patch the hole. But until then, Forrey argues that the low staffing levels, combined with this high-stress job, are frightening, and that a number of towers are badly undermanned. And in addition to some of the large international gateway U.S. airports, he also throws in a surprise airport: Las Vegas. "When you go to gamble in Las Vegas, you start when you arrive," he says.

And then, runway incursions.

Consider this: For the six-month reporting period ending March 30, there were 15 serious "runway incursions," almost double the number of last year. "The incursions happen when aircraft are in the wrong place at the wrong time," says Mark Rosenker, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "That is the thing that keeps me up at night."

The second pressure point? The FAA culture itself. Some critics contend that the agency only makes speedy changes in the wake of disaster.

"My experience," says Barr, "is that the FAA doesn't do anything until you either kill somebody or you've spilled enough blood to get people's attention."

One case in particular: The crash of the ValuJet DC-9 in May 1996. In the ValuJet case, a fire started in the cargo hold — a fire so intense that the pilots were unable to make an emergency landing back at Miami. The fire literally melted crucial control cables and the plane corkscrewed into the Florida Everglades, killing all aboard. The tragic irony of that crash was that it was nearly a repeat of an incident in Nashville eight years earlier, when a fire also broke out in the cargo hold of an American Airlines MD-80. In the Nashville incident, the crew was able to make an emergency landing, and all aboard survived.

When the National Transportation Safety Board investigated the American Airlines accident, they not only determined the probable cause of the fire, but also figured out a solution that would prevent further accidents of that type. They discovered that there were no fire-suppression or smoke-detection systems on board any narrow-body commercial jets in the U.S. — none on MD-80s or DC-9s, none on 737s. So the board made a strong recommendation to the FAA that it require airlines to retrofit their fleets to install the fire-suppression and smoke-detection systems.

The FAA did not act on that recommendation.

And why was it a tragic irony? Just ask Greg Feith, who was the lead NTSB investigator of the ValuJet crash. "Shortly before the ValuJet tragedy, we received a response from the FAA saying that the agency didn't see the need to put these systems on older planes. It was unfortunate that we had to lose 110 people because of that."

Finally, more than three years after the ValuJet tragedy, and 11 years after the American incident, the FAA finally acted, and required those fire-suppression and smoke-detection systems in narrow-bodied aircraft.

Indeed, the NTSB is not a regulatory agency. It can only make safety recommendations to the FAA. And each year, the NTSB issues its "Most Wanted List" of safety problems it says need immediate improvement by the FAA.

This year, there are six items are on their most wanted list. "A red dot means that nothing is happening, that we have received what we consider to be an unsatisfactory response," says the NTSB's Rosenker. And of those six, five have red dots.

Finally, some say the FAA has gotten too cozy with airlines — citing whistleblowers' recent revelations that the FAA ignored maintenance issues for Southwest Airlines' 737s. It resulted in more than a $10 million fine levied against Southwest. Shortly thereafter, Delta, United and American grounded thousands of flights for maintenance inspection.

Southwest says safety was never compromised and that they grounded their planes out of "an abundance of caution."

This angers Congressman Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. "It's unbelievable that 200,000 passengers flew on aircraft that technically, at least, were not safe," he says. "But the issue, however, goes deeper — that the FAA and the airlines were in concert with each other." Oberstar wants to see new legislation to ensure the safety of the traveling public — including more funding for maintenance and regulation.

The FAA says that progress is in the works — even at its current funding level.

"It is the best system in the world," says Sturgell. "And our challenge, collectively, is to continue to improve it."

The question that remains is how fast the FAA is prepared to move to make that happen.

Check on Wednesday, May 21, for Part II: How safe are the planes? Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s travel editor. His column appears weekly on Visit his Web site at .