Air Safety Program Near Collapse

President George W. Bush and Queen Elizabeth II greet schoolchildren while walking from the White House to Blair House along Pennsylvania Avenue Monday, May 7, 2007, in Washington. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) GETTY IMAGES/Chip Somodevilla

Investigators have long relied on information from black boxes to solve air crashes and eliminate aviation risks. The practice even has a name: "tombstone safety," or fixing the problem that caused the last accident.

But, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr, some foreign airlines have long used the very same data collected on a routine basis to find and correct problems before they lead to accidents. British Airways has been checking its flights for 30 years.

Former pilot David Learmount is an aviation safety analyst. "If they get enough reports they can instantly recognize a buildup or a trend and then they can fix it — before it becomes an operational incident."

Here in the US, a similar program is just getting started.

Flying Safely
  • Be reasonable about the amount of carry-on baggage.
  • Be careful about what you put into the storage bins, the doors could pop open and spill their contents.
  • Fasten your seatbelt as soon as you sit down.
  • Listen to the briefing about safety procedures — the operation of emergency exits, seat belts, life vests and oxygen masks will be explained.

    If you are in an accident:
  • Stay calm.
  • Listen to the crew members and do what they say.
  • Before you open an emergency exit, look outside the window — if there is fire outside the door, fire could spread into the cabin.
  • Leave your possessions behind.
  • Jump feet first onto evacuation slide — don’t sit down to slide. Place arms across your chest, elbows in, and legs and feet together.

    (Source: U.S. DOT, FAA)
  • Six major U.S. airlines are analyzing their own data looking for signs of trouble — like steep takeoffs and hard landings. They do not punish pilots when mistakes are found, but the airlines do privately share findings with one another.

    That way a problem found at United could also be fixed at Delta.

    But this voluntary monitoring system may be on the verge of collapse. The Federal Aviation Administration has proposed a rule that would require airlines to turn over their findings to regulators, who, in turn, could punish airlines and pilots for any eregious mistakes.

    The FAA says it also wants to make sure smaller airlines get the safety data. But Paul McCarthy, a pilot and union official, says the FAA's threat of retaliation could kill the program.

    "The government wants to walk in, take the information and reserve the right to use it to violate us," contends McCarthy.

    Pilots and airlines also worry that once the information is in government hands, it could be made public, meaning the media would be free to interpret which airline might be safer than another.

    "The graph in the morning paper would mislead the traveling public. This is information that is so susceptible to misuse that it must be used very carefully," warned McCarthy.

    David Learmount says the threat of bad publicity, government sanctions, and possible lawsuits combine for a chilling effect.

    "It's all to do with the fact the U.S. is a litigious culture. They were afraid of getting material which they could use actually in a responsible way but which would end up being used against them," explained Learmount.

    So, U.S. airlines and flight crews are on guard. Pilots warn they'll quit cooperating if their "immunity" is jeopardized and airlines say they'll stop collecting data if the FAA forces them to turn over the information. It's an impasse, over privacy and job security, that threatens to compromise a proven safety program.


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    • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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