Unfit for Flight or Unfit for Publication?

This week US newspaper USA Today has featured a 3 part ‘exposé’ on general aviation and its safety record by Tom Frank that claimed ‘Lies and coverups mask roots of small-aircraft crashes’:

  1. Unfit for Flight: Hidden defects linked to small-aircraft crashes over five decades
  2. Unchecked carnage: NTSB probes don’t dive deep after small-aircraft crashes
  3. How much is a human life worth?

This series caused outrage in the aviation community:

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) called the report ‘extremely flawed’, ‘one-sided’ and ‘inaccurate’ in their press release:

The article leads one to believe that general aviation is an unsafe form of transportation, but in truth, general aviation has demonstrated significant progress in safety. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the number of fatalities has declined by over 40 percent since the early 1990s. Of course mentioning that sort of fact would have undermined reporter Tom Frank’s narrative; you won’t find those statistics in his piece.

It is clear that Mr. Frank could make no space in his lengthy article for evidence of progress—evidence laid out in an hour-long discussion AOPA had with him last week. Including this information would have undermined his misplaced notion that general aviation is unsafe.

The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) called the story ‘sensationalistic’ and stated in their press release:

The reality is that the number of fatal accidents in general aviation aircraft has declined substantially in recent years. In fact, the goal of 1 fatal accident per 100,000 hours flown by 2018 now appears increasingly likely.

The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), along with other members of the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC)—a group of government, industry, and user groups dedicated to improving aviation safety—has pressed the FAA to streamline requirements governing the use of Angle of Attack (AoA) indicators in general aviation aircraft. AoA indicators can help pilots avoid losing control of the aircraft in flight, the primary cause of accidents. Thanks to these efforts, the FAA recently made it easier and more cost-effective for pilots to install AoAs. This initiative has the potential to have a significant impact toward combatting loss-of-control accidents. The GAJSC continues to develop other concrete improvements to improve overall safety.

As Mr. Frank notes, the average general aviation aircraft is now 41 years old. That’s why the FAA and industry partnered in 2011 to form the Part 23 Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC), a group of 150 government and industry experts who spent 18 months studying how to more efficiently and effectively introduce new safety technology into new and existing small general aviation airplanes. GAMA’s Greg Bowles co-chaired this effort. Congress and industry are now actively working to ensure the FAA implements the ARC’s recommendations.

Independently, Jeff Schweitzer, a former White House Assistant Director for International Affairs in the Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Clinton Administration, published a damning piece entitled ‘Unfit for Publication: How USA Today Got Everything Wrong’ in the Huffington Post:

Nearly every inference about aviation in the article is wrong.

The real story here is media bias and editorial malpractice, not the dangers of aviation or manufacturing defects. The article insinuates that huge numbers of people are dying in small airplanes, and that the cause is largely manufacturing defects. Both conclusions are untrue. Deaths in general aviation are actually few relative to comparable activities, and when there is an accident manufacturing defects rarely play any role. The writing in the USA Today article is so transparently biased that the author draws conclusions obviously inconsistent with his own presentation. An example is a chart showing a significant decline in generation aviation accidents with the headline “general aviation accident crash rate remains steady.” In spite of that absurd claim the chart clearly shows the death rate since 1983 declined from 107 per million flight hours to 65; and the total number of accidents declined from 1,068 to 444 over that same period.

The sensationalism of the article in USA Today does nobody any service. They got it wrong completely. Flying is relatively safe because we have made it so by managing inherent risk and minimizing operational risk; piling on manufacturers with exaggerated claims, bloated numbers and inaccurate conclusions does not help us advance toward a better record of safety. USA Today made itself part of the problem rather than contributing to the solution.

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