Honest Answers from Mary Schiavo, Former Inspector General
Is enough being done to make passenger flights safe? In March, a pilot for the airline Germanwings deliberately crashed an Airbus passenger jet into a mountain, killing 150 people. That is not the first time a pilot has deliberately crashed a plane.
Bottom Line/Personal asked former US Department of Transportation Inspector General Mary Schiavo to answer questions about air safety…
Following the Germanwings disaster, we learned that US carriers are required to have two crew members in the cockpit at all times. Is this an effective safety measure?
Yes, it’s very, very valuable—and not just because it could prevent pilots from intentionally crashing planes. I do believe that having a second person in the cockpit would have prevented the Germanwings crash. But there also have been cases where pilots have passed out or died in the cockpit or struggled to put on their oxygen masks in an emergency. Following the Germanwings crash, Canadian, Australian and European Union carriers have adopted the US policy of requiring at least two crew members in the cockpit.
How significant is the threat of terrorism to air travelers these days?
Terrorism is probably the single greatest threat to air travelers today—and it requires extensive security measures. Sooner or later, terrorists will attempt an attack on a plane involving an electronic device, which will lead to new restrictions on our laptop computers and smartphones…or they will try to get a bomb in a checked bag, and we will face additional luggage restrictions.
How well is the TSA protecting air travelers against terrorism?
Before 9/11, security was handled by the airlines, and they were terrible at it. So viewed that way, the TSA is a vast improvement. But there has been a tendency to focus on the most recent terrorist attack and forget about other threat vectors. While the passenger side of airport security has been substantially improved, there have been hundreds of breaches through the fences and gates around runways at US airports…and almost no US airports subject airline and airport employees to daily security screening, such as metal detectors. (Miami International Airport does, to its credit.) If these gaps are not corrected, terrorists will find a way to exploit them, such as recruiting employees.
We sometimes hear that Israel does the best job with airline screening. Why can’t we match them?
Israel is far ahead of us in this area, but there currently is no realistic way for us to do what Israeli security does. There’s less air traffic in all of Israel than in a single large US airport. If we tried to implement Israel’s level of individual screening and interviewing, our air-transit system would grind to a halt. The only feasible way for the US to dramatically improve airport screening is through technology such as next-generation facial-recognition software and better detection of weapons and explosives. Expect much more of this in US airports in the coming years.
Should airline passengers try to subdue a passenger or crew member who seems dangerous?
Absolutely they should. And what’s more, they do. Americans have shown an impressive willingness to team up and take action in these situations. Passengers helped stop the shoe bomber in 2001 and the underwear bomber in 2009…and they were coming up with plans to take on the terrorists on all four of the 9/11 flights, though only the passengers on Flight 93 had time to put their plan into action.
Passengers are shielded by law from liability if they accidentally injure or kill someone they reasonably believe poses a threat to an aircraft.
Are any airlines so unsafe that they are best avoided?
Don’t fly on any airline that is on the European Union’s Air Safety List. This list is dominated by carriers based in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. There is no US list.
Is it especially risky to fly into or out of certain airports?
Three factors can make an airport dangerous. The first is weather—there is a huge correlation between snowy, icy weather and plane crashes. Avoid winter flights with connections in northern cities when possible. Second is geography—some airports, including Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, Idaho, and Pitkin County Airport in Aspen, Colorado, require pilots to land on short runways surrounded by mountains. Third is an old-style layout where runways intersect one another and taxiways cross active runways, such as at Chicago’s Midway, New York’s LaGuardia and Washington’s Reagan National. LaGuardia and Reagan National also have water at the end of certain runways, increasing the danger if a pilot overshoots.
Also avoid flying into or out of airports in countries that have a “Significant Safety Concern,” according to the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Are certain commercial aircraft more dangerous than others?
I avoid flying on aircraft manufactured by the French-Italian company ATR because it has a long history of crashes in various countries, including an American Eagle crash in Indiana in 1994 that was blamed on icing. I also try to avoid “tired irons,” such as old Boeing 757s or McDonnell Douglas MD-88s, and propeller planes because they don’t handle icing conditions well. I never fly on any airplane made in Russia.
It’s generally safer to fly on large planes than small ones—they are tougher, and larger planes tend to get the most experienced pilots.
A government report warned that hackers might use Wi-Fi to crash a plane. Is this a real danger?
It is a legitimate concern, but no one has yet proved that you can really do it. And only the very latest planes—the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 and A380—are potentially vulnerable.
The FAA’s new NextGen air-traffic control system has an even more pressing problem. This multibillion-dollar system, which already is being slowly phased in, puts most of the air-traffic control workload in the hands of computers—yet amazingly the FAA did not bother to put in a firewall to keep hackers out. It definitely is vulnerable.
How dangerous are bird strikes?
Bird strikes have grown far more common in the US in the past two decades because of increasing Canada geese populations that are big enough to destroy the engines of commercial airlines. They are most likely to cause problems at airports near water, landfills or wildlife preserves. LaGuardia Airport is near water and a landfill.
Is it safer to fly at certain times?
Earlier in the day is safer. Pilots and air-traffic controllers are more likely to be fatigued by late afternoon, and delays and frustration might have piled up that could divert their attention.