Jumble of Air Safety Rules
By SUSAN STELLIN
Aviation officials often cite the industry’s low accident rate after a plane crash, and statistics back up their assertions: last year, there were about 2.5 accidents for every one million commercial flights worldwide.
But that is still about 90 accidents, 18 of them involving nearly 700 fatalities, and safety standards can vary widely among airlines. Yet passengers and companies responsible for employee travel have little information to evaluate a carrier’s safety standards, or judge a particular country’s commitment to safety, given the patchwork of organizations monitoring safety and the limits on what details are made public.
That issue has been in the spotlight ever since the Federal Aviation Administration downgraded Mexico from a category 1 rating to category 2 on July 30, meaning it does not comply with safety standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency that the United States and other countries rely on for guidelines.
Those standards evaluate whether a country has adequate laws to oversee air carriers and a civil aviation authority with the expertise, personnel and procedures to enforce safety regulations. The F.A.A. typically does not disclose why a country’s rating has been downgraded, leaving travelers — and some industry officials — in the dark about how to interpret the change.
“It’s definitely worrisome,” said William R. Voss, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation, although he emphasized that the category 2 rating was an evaluation of the government’s oversight capabilities, not individual carriers.
“It would appear that Mexico has had some problems with its work force of inspectors,” Mr. Voss said. While Mexican airlines may be maintaining adequate standards, he added that “it means that they’re doing it of their own volition and the regulator is not standing above them and holding them to account.”
Mexico’s transport ministry has said the downgrade was because of an insufficient number of aviation inspectors, a situation it is working to correct. In the meantime, the category 2 rating means that Mexican carriers cannot code-share with American carriers, or add new service to the United States, although existing flights between the two countries may continue.
About 20 countries have a category 2 rating, including Belize, Honduras, Indonesia, Israel, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Uruguay and many African nations.
Although the United States government does not evaluate individual airlines, the European Union maintains a list of carriers that are banned from flying to its airports; that blacklist includes more than 200 airlines, mostly from Africa, Indonesia and the Philippines.
The International Air Transport Association, a trade group representing 230 carriers, maintains a registry of airlines that have passed its operational safety audit; about 340 carriers have met hundreds of criteria, like ensuring crew members have been trained in procedures, like responses to wind shear.
While the registry is considered valuable, it has some limitations. Many of its provisions defer to national regulations on things like pilot rest, meaning a carrier simply must demonstrate it abides by local rules, which can vary. Other criteria are suggestions, not requirements.
“It’s the industry policing itself,” said Bruce McIndoe, president of iJet, a company that provides risk intelligence services to corporate clients, including airline safety. Mr. McIndoe said his primary concern was aircraft maintenance, particularly given the growth in global air travel and the pressure to find qualified workers — and properly certified (not black market) parts.
“Where are all these parts coming from and where are all these people coming from?” he asked. “There are huge opportunities for abuse, and abuse leads to safety failures.”
That is a message Bonnie Rind has been trying to spread ever since her brother died in Thailand in 2007. His One Two Go Airlines flight from Bangkok to Phuket crashed while trying to land, killing 90 of the 130 people on board.
Reports issued by Thai investigators and the National Transportation Safety Board found several pilot errors. Both pilots had exceeded their duty time limits, had insufficient rest before the flight and had not received required training.
Ms. Rind, an engineer who has some flight experience, did her own investigation, using the Internet to connect with Western-trained commercial pilots working in Thailand. She said she had found evidence of a broader pattern of lax oversight of airlines in Thailand (posted at investigateudom.com), and met with representatives from the F.A.A. to press for a more thorough review of the country’s safety standards.
“I showed them what I had collected and asked them how it was possible Thailand was a category 1 country,” Ms. Rind said. “They told me that they couldn’t answer specific questions about Thailand or any other review.”
Laura J. Brown, a spokeswoman for the F.A.A., said the agency could not comment on its decisions about Mexico or Thailand, citing confidentiality agreements with other countries.
Ms. Rind views that as a disservice to Americans who increasingly travel to remote corners of the globe, not necessarily understanding the disparities in aviation safety.
“What troubles me is that travelers cannot evaluate this issue. The information is not available to them,” she said.
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