Being high up in the air, travelling at hundreds of miles per hour, is not the normal human condition. Some of us react to being on an airline flight with intense concern and anxiety, some with death grips on the arm rests, but most of us react with vague sensations of concern.
The fatal crash on March 10 of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 is the sort of tragedy that focuses comprehensive international attention on the inherent risks of flight. For large numbers of people around the globe, that vague sensation becomes focused fear, especially if they will soon be boarding planes themselves.
The fatal flight was supposed to be a routine relatively short trip between Addis Ababa, the headquarters of the airline, to a landing in Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. Instead, the aircraft plunged to the ground after only six minutes in flight, killing all 149 passengers and the eight members of the crew
The aircraft type, a Boeing 737 Max, was also involved in a similar fatal crash last October. The Indonesia airline Lion Air Flight 610 crashed in almost identical circumstances while on a domestic trip. All 189 people aboard were killed when the aircraft suddenly dived into the Java Sea only 12 minutes after taking off.
With the second air crash involving large fatalities, the international media and politicians have been quick to react. There have been demands for action, investigation, and in particular that the suspect Boeing airplanes be grounded.
At least in institutional terms, both Boeing Corporation and the United States government have been relatively slow responding to this second air tragedy. Boeing quickly provided reassuring statements about safety, and little else. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced the plane is safe, certified as such by government inspection.
Scholars of government, known as political scientists, have an established tenet that public regulatory bodies tend to become captives of the industries they are supposed to supervise. The railroad industry is the classic case study. This story appears to provide new evidence, including reports Boeing not the FAA handled safety inspections.
President Donald Trump demonstrated the political instincts that brought him to the White House, overruling bureaucrats corporate and governmental. He grounded the aircraft, as has the rest of the world
Meanwhile, shortly after the latest fatal crash, Boeing filings revealed that chief executive officer Dennis Muilenburg last year received a 27 percent raise, to $23.4 million annually. Executive compensation is a primary function of a corporation’s board of directors.
While the increase may be justified by Boeing’s profits, the announcement timing and tone demonstrates the tin ear for politics and public relations that characterizes much of corporate America. Impersonal, insensitive finance-driven management ultimately destroys loyalty of workers and the public.
Meanwhile, air travel overall has become safer. During 2017, there were no fatalities from commercial passenger flights anywhere in the world - a first.
There has not been a fatal civilian crash in the United States since 2009. In the U.S. and other advanced economies, air safety has improved steadily.
Deregulation of the airline industry has greatly aided this trend. In this realm as in others, President Jimmy Carter deserves credit for policy success.
Carter appointee Alfred Kahn on the Civil Aeronautics Board pressed airline deregulation and opening of other sectors. Turmoil resulted, but prices declined, efficiencies increased and so did safety.
Free markets properly regulated free people to earn, live better - and travel.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.