It's been a rough week for the airline industry. And an anxiety-provoking one for all those who fly.
On Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration slapped American Eagle (owned by the parent of American Airlines) with a $2.9 million penalty for allegedly not maintaining landing gear doors on four regional jets. More than 1,100 flights were involved.
A day later, the Department of Transportation jumped in with its own report. The Chicago Tribune
wrote that "Federal inspectors failed to detect a troubling decline in the maintenance and upkeep of American Airlines aircraft in recent years." The newspaper said the situation "is raising questions about the effectiveness of an inspection system that, critics contend, has largely left airlines to police themselves."
I have a simple proposal for making the skies safer, and it doesn't involve more regulatory slaps on the wrist after offenses have been committed.
The Obama administration should mandate that the FAA bring a new level of transparency and openness to its regulatory apparatus. This would fulfill a vision of government that the president championed when he was on the campaign trail. It would bring that same consumer-first approach to the skies, and would bring the withering light of public scrutiny to bear on the current closed, self-regulating environment.
Here's how airline safety could be brought out of the shadows and onto the public runway of visibility. Everyone should be able to log onto the FAA site -- and the site of every airline for that matter -- and have access to detailed information about each aircraft by flight number. So if I'm flying from New York to Seattle on American Airlines Flight 21, for example, I could drill down to:
– The entire maintenance history of the aircraft – miles flown, when it was last inspected by the airline, what was found, when the repairs were made.
– The name of the last FAA inspector to fine-tooth comb the aircraft.
– The aircraft's maintenance schedule and how it compares to FAA mandates.
– Photos of the maintained areas, before and after.
– The name of the pilot and co-pilot, their flying record (including near misses, if any), and the number of hours they've flown that week.
This kind of disclosure would no doubt send the airline industry -- and the unions -- into a tizzy. But why shouldn't travelers be entitled to know this? After all, when I step into any elevator there's a little panel on the wall that tells me who last inspected the little flying box -- and that inspector has to sign his or her name. And the last time I looked, elevators weren't lifting to 5,000 feet and didn't come with flotation devices.
Because access to this information would allow consumers to make more informed decisions, it would create a real free market and produce all sorts of beneficial results. Right now, because fliers have no visibility into the maintenance biography, airlines that invest the absolute minimum in maintenance are at no disadvantage to those that invest more. There is no reward for scrupulousness; the current opaque system encourages less investment.
With my system, airlines could promote their investment in maintenance and fewer pilot hours -- and consumers could choose to pay higher prices for higher standards. It would create positive competition around whose maintenance is better and whose pilots fly less -- a good thing for public safety and also, ironically, for the airlines' own economic health.
I'm confident that over the next decade this will happen. Putting important inspection information online will become common practice by federal, state and local agencies.
It was in 1913 when Louis Brandeis, who became a U.S. Supreme Court justice three years later, famously wrote, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." If writing today, his hygienic metaphor might read, "Digital sunlight is the best disinfectant."