03/26/2019 14:56 EDT | Updated 03/27/2019 09:27 EDT

When It Comes To Airline Safety, Passengers Should Know What They're Getting

The Boeing Max disasters have provided an immense wake up call to a complacent industry

Chris Helgren / Reuters
An Air Canada Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft is seen on the ground at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Toronto, on Mar. 13, 2019.

If you're old enough to remember when airlines didn't charge for an in-flight meal, checked baggage, a slightly better seat, and a reasonable amount of legroom, you may have assumed all this profit maximizing stopped at safety measures.

As it turns out, you would be wrong.

Just as airlines have taken an à la carte approach to passenger amenities, Boeing, which controls 43 per cent of the global commercial aircraft market, has a longstanding practice of making certain safety features optional.

In the case of the crashes that led to the grounding of the 737 Max series, it is possible that two of these optional features would have helped avert disaster. The fact that one of them is now being provided free of charge certainly points to that possibility.

For Canadians, these tragedies present an opportunity to re-evaluate our approach to airline safety.

On its face the idea of a plane manufacturer charging extra for crew oxygen masks, an additional fire extinguisher, or advanced weather gear feels offensive. If such items could save lives, shouldn't they be mandatory?

Boeing has no shortage of smart lobbyists, and the company has spent nearly US$275 million on U.S. lobbying efforts since 1998. One has to imagine this year will be another busy one on that front, so let's start by making their argument.

Air travel is a mass market service provided at an affordable price that offers a high level of safety relative to other risks people assume daily, such as driving a car. Given the stakes involved, the industry has a constant incentive to improve its safety record, and indeed, as one headline boasted last year, American airlines are all so safe that it is impossible to differentiate them on that basis.

It takes money to develop life-saving innovations, and at some point, it is up to individual carriers to decide whether an incremental dollar spent on safety is worthwhile given the risk being reduced and the need to provide service at a price customers can afford.

Put simply, the free market works.

This argument will sound familiar to anyone who has taken Economics 101. Where the argument breaks down is the fact that travellers know very little about the planes on which they are flying, and it appears the government agencies responsible for protecting them know less than they should as well.

In the wake of the most recent disaster, Donald Trump was quick to claim that "Airplanes are becoming too complex to fly." Trump was completely wrong, but he stumbled into an insight of sorts.

The planes may not be too complex to fly, but they do appear to have become too complex to regulate.

One worrying detail to emerge following the most recent crash is the close relationship between Boeing and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It appears that in the face of budget pressures and the need to assess very complicated machines, the FAA, which has functioned as a sort of global regulator, has been increasingly willing to allow Boeing to certify its own planes.

Lindsey Wasson / Reuters
An aerial photo shows Boeing 737 MAX airplanes parked on the tarmac at the Boeing Factory in Renton, Wash., on Mar. 21, 2019.

The fact that this problem received attention before the recent Ethiopian Airlines disaster should be worrying and raises questions about what the FAA learned from the first Lion Air crash.

For example, an article published on Feb. 3, which appeared more than a month before the most recent disaster, noted that Boeing had lobbied heavily to convince the FAA that additional pilot training on the new Max, which would have made the planes more expensive, was not necessary. Moreover, the company did not even inform pilots of the existence of the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system that is a prime suspect in both crashes.

At the time Boeing was reported to be planning a software upgrade, though the details of the plan were not clear. What was clear is that the plane already had one crash in its short time on the market, concerns were being raised about the manner in which it was approved in the first place, and Boeing was fixing something.

To be fair to Boeing and the FAA, accidents are easier to examine after the fact than predict in advance, but one has to wonder whether better regulatory oversight during the Max certification process or greater caution after the Lion Air crash could have saved lives.

Regardless, Canadian regulators should no longer be deferring to the FAA.

Having multiple independent government regulators working on the challenge of certifying new planes and sharing information between them is more likely to uncover problems. Moreover, if manufacturers are permitted to make safety features optional, consumers need to be informed about the choices each airline has made.

Last week Air Canada told the public it purchased both optional safety features that have been discussed in connection with the two recent crashes, and WestJet confirmed it bought one of them. But Canadians remain in the dark about the many other domestic and foreign carriers flying to and from Canada's airports.

There are no doubt security issues involved in publicizing too much information about how airplanes work, but it would certainly be possible for Transport Canada to provide overall ratings along the lines of those provided for cars by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Such an approach would encourage airlines to differentiate themselves on their safety precautions, and it would allow those who want to cut corners to test how much consumers really are willing to sacrifice for a cheaper fare.

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Once travellers know how the sausage is made, it is likely all airlines will be dragged toward a higher standard of safety, but if there actually is a market for less safety conscious travel, then by all means let the market prevail — as long as Transport Canada forces airlines to tell their customers what they are buying.

Unfortunately, Canada has also made cuts to airline regulation over the past several years, presumably on the assumption that we can rely on increasingly sophisticated plane technology and the FAA's leadership to keep Canadian fliers safe.

Those budget cuts have already led to dire warnings about declining pilot competence and gaps in the government's inspection regime. New questions about the FAA and the planes themselves ought to suggest a rethink about whether those changes were prudent.

The Boeing Max disasters have provided an immense wake up call to a complacent industry. Hopefully the federal government will heed it.

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