Has the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 adversely affected airline safety?


Statistically speaking, no. The long term trend in the accident rate continues to decline, despite (or because of?) the 1978 Deregulation Act. Since my bias is along free market lines, I would love to say that airline safety has improved more than it would have if they had never deregulated the airlines. Honesty requires me, however, to admit that no one can know if the continuing decline in the accident rate, since 1978, would have been better, worse or the same, if they had never deregulated. There is, quite simply, no objective way to measure such a "What If?" scenario.

There are those who disagree, such as John Nance and Paul Stephen Dempsey.

John Nance is a former Braniff Airline pilot, an attorney at law and the ABC Television Network's resident expert on airline safety. He is the one ABC consults when another airliner has crashed.

Nance has several books to his credit. The one that best reveals his anti-free market ideology is BLIND TRUST: How Deregulation Has Jeopardized Airline Safety and What You Can Do About it.

In Blind Trust, Nance attempts to persuade the reader that airline safety has been jeopardized by the 1978 Deregulation Act.

He devotes 7 chapters to the Air Florida Flight 90 which crashed, with ice on the wings, on January 13, 1982, in an attempt to prove "…the crash of Air Florida's Palm 90 was without question a deregulation accident."

It is a brazen statement, ignoring crashes which occurred before deregulation with much the same factors as the Air Florida crash.

An example would be Ozark, 12-27-68, crashed on takeoff because of ice on the wings. The plane was a total loss, no fatalities (68 on board). Ten minor injuries (passengers) and 3 crew with serious injuries. The pilots in that crash had far less experience on that DC-9 jet than the Air Florida pilots had in their 737 jet, but most died in the Air Florida crash because of where it came down. The Ozark pilots deliberately used an illegal reduced power for takeoff, whereas the Air Florida pilots inadvertently had reduced power because they failed to turn on the electric anti-ice heaters for the engine power probes. That caused a false indication of more power than they actually had. 

The Air Florida pilots did have their plane de-iced on the ground, but the wait for takeoff was too long, and some ice did re-accumulate. The Ozark captain refused de-icing and refused to go out and look at his wings, even after he was informed his plane was covered with ice. In my opinion, the mistakes and deficiencies in the Ozark crash were much the same as in the Air Florida crash, and in some items, even worse. Yet Air Florida shows up as a fatal crash and Ozark doesn’t because of the differences in terrain at the crash sites.

In a 1986 newspaper article, Nance insists that airline flying is less safe than it was before deregulation. He, of course, did not cite any statistics to back up that assertion. That is because accident statistics show just the opposite. "…accident statistics…are virtually useless in measuring the potential for airline crashes," said Nance.

In fact, there is no way to objectively measure the potential for airline crashes other than to compile statistics on past accidents and to diligently investigate each new accident, to find the cause so future repetitions can be prevented.

Paul Stephen Dempsey, former law professor at the University of Denver, also wants you to believe deregulation has lowered the "margin of safety." (Another concept that cannot be objectively measured.) One of his articles compared the flight time of new-hire airline pilots in 1983 to ones hired in 1988 or 89. The latter had less than those hired in 1983. His conclusion? The Deregulation Act of 1978, was causing a decline in experience of pilots hired by the airlines. He didn’t bother to compare them to the experience level of pilots hired before deregulation -- for good reason -- they were even less experienced than those hired after deregulation.

In the 1964 thru 1967 period, many of the new hires had only a few hundred hours of single engine Cessna time and no instrument rating! Some were even hired without any flight time at all, if they had at least a master’s degree. The airline would sign a contract with them to go out and get their commercial license (minimum of 160 hours single engine Cessna time) and then they would start their airline training.

Roger Hall, the United pilot that led the strike in 1985, only had about 300 hours of single engine Cessna time when he was hired in 1964. He did not have an instrument rating. Pilots with that low level of experience would not have a prayer of getting hired today, and probably not at any time since 1978. And, of course, Mr. Dempsey failed to mention that some of the lowest time pilots of all, hired since deregulation, have been minority women, in compliance with consent decrees from the EEOC.

In a 1989 letter to the Wall Street Journal, Professor Dempsey blamed "exploding doors" on Professor Alfred Kahn, the father of deregulation. He referred to those failed cargo doors as "Kahndoors." There had been more than 30 cases of in-flight openings. The fact that those non-plug (outward opening) doors had failed, because of design deficiencies, approved and certified by the FAA bureaucracy years before anyone ever heard of Kahn or deregulation, didn’t seem to bother the "Distinguished" (that’s how he signed the WSJ letter) professor.

Both Nance and Dempsey are polemicists, i.e., they first determine what they want the "truth" to be and then set out to find "facts" to support that position, while ignoring all evidence refuting that position. Nance is grinding the union axe, while Dempsey is grinding the bureaucrat axe (he was an employee of the now defunct Civil Aeronautics Board.)

That is the reason for this web page: to counter the vast amount of false and misleading information on the subject of airline safety. It is unfortunately true, that in your search to find out about airline safety, you will come across many that are motivated by money and/or politics. They are grinding hidden axes in hopes of getting the public to pressure Congress to change laws so that their personal agenda can be advanced. Unions representing airline employees do that on a regular basis, so you have to be very careful about safety information that comes from a source like that. Sometimes they do provide valuable contributions (like ALPA's submission to the NTSB on the defects in the 737 rudder design), but many times they are deliberately distorting the truth to serve their own agenda.

April, 1998

Robert J. Boser    
E ditor-in-Chief 

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