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History of Aviation Safety

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First Recorded Passenger

The first person to fly as a passenger was Leon Delagrange, who rode with French pilot Henri Farman from a meadow outside of Paris in 1908. Charles Furnas became the first American airplane passenger when he flew with Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk later that year.

The Record

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates transportation accidents. It also publishes transportation safety statistics. As part of its accident investigation function, NTSB gathers facts about the accident and seeks to determine the reasons for it. If appropriate, it can also make recommendations to regulatory bodies for safety improvements.

NTSB statistics show that the U.S. airlines' safety record has improved steadily through the years, most notably including the years since deregulation. In 1999, the U.S. scheduled airlines averaged .3 fatal accidents per one billion aircraft miles flown. This compares with two fatal accidents per one billion miles flown in 1978, the year that Congress enacted the legislation to deregulate aviation rates and routes.

The airline safety record also compares very favorably with many other everyday activities. Since 1938, when the government began keeping records of aviation accidents, the very worst year for airline fatalities was 1974, with 460 deaths. By contrast, more than 40,000 people die each year in highway accidents. Sadly, in a typical three-month period, more people die on the nation's highways than have died in all airline accidents since the advent of commercial aviation.

The National Safety Council publishes an annual report on accidental deaths in the United States that also helps put the U.S. airline safety record into perspective. According to the council's 1999 report for 1998, 16,600 people died that year in accidental falls, 9,000 from poisoning, 4,100 from drowning, 3,700 from burns, 3,200 from suffocation brought on by ingestion or inhalation of food and other objects, and 900 from guns fired accidentally.

The Government's Safety Role

The federal government plays an important role in assuring the safety of air travel. It has done so since the enactment of the Air Commerce Act of 1926, and it continues to play a leading role in aviation safety today. Although the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 ended all domestic economic regulation of the airlines, it did not end government regulation of safety. All safety requirements and programs in place at that time are still in force, and many new regulations have been added.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

The primary responsibility for airline safety regulation lies with the Federal Aviation Administration. Congress established the FAA as an agency of the Department of Transportation when it created the department in 1967. It is the successor to the Federal Aviation Agency, an independent agency created by the Federal Aviation Act of 1958.

The FAA is also responsible for developing, maintaining and operating the nation's Air Traffic Control (ATC) system, which is described in Chapter 8. Nearly three-fourths of the FAA's almost 50,000 employees are involved in some aspect of ATC. Their mission is to ensure the safe separation of aircraft during flight and to sequence aircraft for taxiing, takeoff and landing.

FAA's other major functions include reviewing the design, manufacture and maintenance of aircraft, setting minimum standards for crew training, establishing operational requirements for airlines and airports, and conducting safety-related research and development work. In short, it sets the minimum safety standards for the airlines and acts as the public's watchdog for safety.

Aircraft Certification

Federal law requires that all civil aircraft operating in the United States be certified as airworthy by the FAA. There are well over 200,000 licensed civil aircraft in the United States, the vast majority of them privately owned general-aviation aircraft (small planes used primarily for pleasure flying, training, corporate travel and agricultural purposes like crop spraying).

FAA's certification process begins with the design of an aircraft. FAA aeronautical engineers participate in the design process. They also oversee the construction and flight testing of the prototype. If all tests are successfully completed, FAA issues a type certificate for the new aircraft, followed by a production certificate, once FAA is satisfied that the manufacturer has everything in place to properly duplicate the prototype.

The final step in aircraft certification is the issuance of an airworthiness certificate, which essentially is FAA's stamp of approval for each aircraft coming off the assembly line. It attests to the fact that the plane has been properly built, according to an approved design, and that it is safe for commercial service.

The FAA requires that all commercial transport aircraft be designed with built-in redundancies, so they can fly even when a structural element fails. For example, there is more than one way to lower the landing gear, more than one way to communicate with the ground and more than one way to control the aircraft.

Design problems, discovered after a plane is in service, that result in a possible unsafe condition, are addressed through airworthiness directives, or ADs. Through these directives the FAA informs all operators of the aircraft or engine type of the repairs or modifications needed to correct the problem. Usually, ADs are written in consultation with the manufacturer, but unlike manufacturer-generated service bulletins, ADs carry the force of law and airlines must comply with them. If the problem poses an immediate safety hazard, the FAA will direct the airlines to complete the work quickly, sometimes even before further flight. In most situations, however, there is no immediate safety hazard and the airlines are given a specified amount of time to complete the ADs.

Operating Certificates

Federal aviation regulations (FARs) require FAA certification of all airline companies, as well as the equipment they use. Every airline therefore is issued an operating certificate by the FAA. FARs spell out the requirements for engaging in large-plane service. These are operating requirements. The Department of Transportation mandates that financial, insurance and citizenship requirements be complied with before it issues to the airline a second, separate certificate known as the certificate of public convenience and necessity.

Among other things, a commercial operator must have FAA-approved training and maintenance programs, as well as comply with airworthiness certificates for each aircraft. The maintenance program must specify the intervals at which certain aircraft and engine parts will be inspected and, in some cases, replaced. In addition, the maintenance shops the airline intends to use (both its own shops and those of subcontractors) must be certified by FAA and open to inspection, on demand. Records of all maintenance work must be kept and also must be open to FAA inspection. Other requirements address such things as:

  • the equipment a carrier must have aboard each aircraft;
  • flammability standards for cabin materials;
  • floor lighting for emergency evacuation;
  • onboard smoking rules;
  • the number of flight attendants that must be aboard;
  • the content of pre-flight announcements;
  • rules for carry-on baggage;
  • security procedures;
  • aircraft de-icing procedures.

Certification of Airline Personnel

As with aircraft and airlines, the people who work on, fly or manage airplanes must be personally licensed by the FAA and have minimum levels of training and experience. These certification requirements apply to aircraft mechanics, pilots, flight engineers, aircraft dispatchers and the FAA's own air traffic controllers. The schools where these aviation professionals get their training, as well as the teachers in those schools, also require an FAA license.

Large aircraft airline pilots must have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time, including at least 250 hours flying as a pilot in command of an aircraft. They must pass a written exam testing their knowledge of aircraft operations, meteorology, navigation, radio communication and other subjects important to flying aircraft in commercial service. They must demonstrate their flying skills to an FAA examiner (or FAA-designated examiner), performing various types of takeoffs and landings, inflight maneuvers, and emergency procedures, either in an airplane or a simulator. They also must pass a medical exam, both pre-employment and every year after they are hired. Recurrent training also is required. FAA Flight Standards Service establishes all training and operating requirements for the airlines.

Airport Certification

FAA also regulates airports, although to a lesser extent than pilots, airlines and aircraft. It was empowered to do so by the Airport and Airway Development Act of 1970, with a primary purpose of promoting the development of new aviation infrastructure. The act states that all airports with commercial service must be certified by the FAA and that certification will be granted only if the airport complies with certain safety criteria set by the FAA. Among those criteria are ones dealing with the number and type of fire-fighting vehicles at the airport, runway lighting and storage facilities for fuel.

The FAA also issues advisory circulars to airport operators on such topics as runway paving, drainage and apron design. FAA also provides grants for airport projects that enhance safety and increase the capacity and efficiency of the airport.

Industry Safety Programs

Although the FAA is charged with the responsibility for setting and enforcing minimum safety standards, the ultimate and primary responsibility for safety rests with the airlines themselves. The Federal Aviation Act that established the FAA's predecessor agency stated that every license holder assumes "private sector responsibilities for maintaining the highest degree of safety." Of course, it also makes good business sense for the airlines to do everything they can to ensure safety. To airlines, safety is a top priority, and every year they work jointly through the Air Transport Association on an agenda of safety-related programs.

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Aircraft Maintenance

The airlines always have practiced a sophisticated and comprehensive form of preventive medicine when it comes to maintenance. The nature of the airline industry leaves no choice but to make sure that essential equipment is in good working order before an aircraft goes into service.

Every airline has a maintenance program for each type of aircraft it operates. The programs are developed jointly with the manufacturers of the equipment and, as mentioned earlier, must be approved by the FAA. Each involves a series of increasingly complex inspection and maintenance steps pegged to an aircraft's flying time, calendar time, or number of landings and takeoffs. With each step, maintenance personnel probe the aircraft, taking apart more and more components for closer and closer inspection. Among the many inspection and maintenance procedures, a typical program involves:

  • a visual "walk around" inspection of an aircraft's exterior, several times each day, to look for leaks, worn tires, cracks, dents and other surface damage; important systems inside the airplane also are checked;
  • an inspection, every three to five days, of the aircraft's landing gear, control surfaces such as flaps and rudders, fluid levels, oxygen systems, lighting and auxiliary power systems;
  • an inspection, every six to none months, of all of the above, plus internal control systems, hydraulic systems, and cockpit and cabin emergency equipment;
  • a check, every 12-17 months, during which aircraft are opened up extensively, so inspectors can use sophisticated devices to look for wear, corrosion and cracks invisible to the human eye;
  • a major check, every three to a half to five years, in which aircraft are essentially taken apart and put back together again, with landing gear and many other components replaced.

In between these scheduled maintenance checks, computers onboard the aircraft monitor the performance of aircraft systems and record such things as abnormal temperatures and fuel and oil consumption. In the newest aircraft, this information is even transmitted to ground stations while the plane is in flight.

All of the major U.S. airlines have extensive maintenance facilities and do most of their own maintenance work. Some tasks, however, are contracted to independent shops, both domestic and foreign, since many airlines now operate globally. As mentioned, all of the repair stations the airlines use must be FAA-approved, and no matter where the work is done, the airline itself retains ultimate responsibility for the quality of the work.

The airlines also have ultimate responsibility for all of the parts they buy. To ensure that parts meet original manufacturer specifications, airlines have rigorous purchasing procedures and quality-control programs that test parts when they are delivered.

Aircraft manufacturers provide considerable product support to their airline customers. In effect, the manufacturers stand behind each of their aircraft for as long as they are in service. If a problem develops, it is immediately reported back to the manufacturer who, in turn, alerts other owners of the aircraft model through service bulletins about the problem and the steps that need to be taken. The FAA also gets the bulletins, and if the problem poses a serious safety hazard, FAA converts the bulletin into an airworthiness directive - mandating inspections, modifications, repairs, or whatever else is necessary to maintain safety.

The FAA permits airlines to temporarily operate aircraft with certain items inoperative, but only if adequate back-up systems are available, or if the item is optional or installed solely for passenger convenience. Airlines are given a specified period of time to repair or replace these items. They may not postpone repairs that relate to the safe operation of the aircraft. Items affecting safety or airworthiness must be repaired prior to further flight.


Airline employees in general receive an extensive amount of training, but especially those who work aboard the aircraft and whose performance directly affects safety.

Pilots are among the most highly trained individuals in any field. Applicants for jobs with a major airline must go through several steps just to get into a training program, then several more steps before they actually begin to fly.

Although airline hiring procedures may differ, those accepted for an interview are judged by many of the same criteria used to judge applicants for any job, including experience and professionalism. The second step is a screening process involving psychological and aptitude tests and a stringent medical examination. Step three usually is a test in a flight simulator that evaluates an applicant's flying skills. Between 10 and 15 percent of an airline's applicants typically make it through this process to gain acceptance to an airline's training program.

Programs vary, but as mentioned, all must meet certain standards established by the FAA, and all must be individually approved by the FAA. Proficiency is the common goal of today's training programs. In many areas, the FAA and the airlines no longer require a set number of hours of training at various tasks as they did in the past. Instead, they require whatever training is necessary for trainees to become proficient at the required tasks. The process recognizes the fact that applicants with different prior experiences enter training programs with different skills and abilities.

The airlines use various training methods, depending on subject matter. The methods include classroom instruction, training in simulators, hands-on equipment training, and the use of self-pacing, self-testing, computerized video presentations. In all cases, the training exercises conclude with exams, drills or flight checks to ensure understanding and competence.

Airline pilots and flight engineers also are required to complete certain recurrent training each year. Normally, recurrent training is done in an advanced simulator and takes from two to four days, depending on the type of airplane the pilot flies. Pilots in command, or captains, must complete some elements of recurrent training every six months.


The U.S. airline industry began security screening of passengers and their baggage in 1973, following a rash of aircraft hijackings. Passengers were required to be screened via metal detector prior to entering the concourse leading to their gate area, to prevent weapons from being carried aboard an aircraft. Subsequently, airlines began to screen carry-on baggage by x-ray machine. This screening system has been in place for over 40 years and it has been extremely successful in preventing hijackings.

During the 1980s, a new and much more serious threat emerged - the threat of sabotage and terrorist acts of aggression, particularly against U.S. flag carriers' originating flights from overseas locations. FAA and the airlines, working closely together in 1985, took steps to significantly increase and add new aviation security measures. In the 1990s, measures were once again enhanced to include the following steps for certain international flights:

  • guarding aircraft at all times while they are on the ground and parking them in secure areas overnight;
  • searching aircraft cabins, cockpits and cargo holds prior to their first flight of the day;
  • inspecting the property of all people who service aircraft, such as cleaning personnel, mechanics, caterers, and cargo and baggage handlers;
  • accepting baggage only from ticketed passengers and only at ticket counters inside an airport;
  • hand searching or x-raying all checked luggage;
  • matching checked baggage against the names of people who have boarded a flight and pulling bags from the baggage compartment for further inspection if they do not match a passenger aboard the flight;
  • questioning passengers before each flight to make sure they have not accepted gifts or packages from people they do not know.

In 1993, terrorism struck the United States directly with the World Trade Center bombing, followed by the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Once again, security was increased at U.S. airports. As a result of the recommendations of the Vice President's Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, published in February 1997, the FAA is purchasing and deploying sophisticated explosive- detection screening equipment at certain U.S. airports for use by the airlines. U.S. airlines are also employing a government required and approved Computerized Passenger Screening System (CAPS), which automatically determines, using government-approved, objective criteria, which passengers require additional security scrutiny. Enhancements are taking place in passenger screening procedures and training. Also, mandatory background checks are now required for airline screening personnel. Various improvements in cargo screening procedures are also being implemented.

All aviation security measures are designed to be flexible. The airlines work closely with the FAA to increase security with additional procedures and personnel when the need arises. FAA security personnel work closely with law enforcement and intelligence officials worldwide and advise the airlines of any information that could affect their flight operations. A credible threat against a specific flight could result in that flight being canceled, if the threat cannot be resolved.

Aviation security is a fluid process requiring continuing analysis and review by the law enforcement and intelligence communities, as well as both the FAA and the airlines to ensure the highest level of protection for the traveling public.

Joint Efforts

Government and industry officials commonly work together to address recognized safety problems, usually through committees or task forces comprised of representatives of equipment manufacturers, airlines, pilots, mechanics, FAA and the National Aeronautic and Space Administration. Examples of recent efforts are:

Aging Aircraft

Following a highly unusual fuselage failure, a major effort was undertaken to re-examine and revise maintenance and modification procedures for older aircraft. Now, as aircraft age, many components are automatically replaced at specified intervals, well ahead of the time they would be expected to fail.

Collision Avoidance

Years of joint research between government and industry resulted in the development and deployment of the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), which warns pilots when aircraft are getting too close and tells them what they should do to maintain adequate separation. TCAS is now in all commercial jets with 10 or more seats.


As with TCAS, government and industry jointly developed warning devices for aircraft that alert pilots to windshear conditions so they can take appropriate action to avoid these dangerous downdrafts of air.


Following an accident attributed to ice on the wings of the aircraft (a condition that disrupts airflow over the wings and makes it difficult for aircraft to fly), government and industry officials conceived and implemented new procedures for pilots to follow in icy conditions. After de-icing (a process in which a fluid that melts ice is sprayed on an aircraft exterior), pilots have a specific amount of time to take off, depending on weather conditions, and must be de-iced a second time if they exceed the allotted time.


In a series of steps, airlines and government officials have upgraded aircraft interiors with more fire-resistant materials for seats, cabin sidewalls, overhead bins, and other cabin and cargo bay materials.

Human Factors

Recognizing that most accidents are caused by human error, industry and government alike have focused resources, in recent years, on studying human-factor issues. While ongoing, these efforts already have produced improvements in training and in the management of tasks in the cockpit.

Accident Investigations

The NTSB, mentioned earlier, is responsible for investigating all transportation accidents, including all civil aviation accidents. Congress created the board under the same legislation that created the Department of Transportation in 1967. Prior to that time, the Civil Aeronautics Board handled accident investigations.

Initially, the five-member NTSB was an autonomous agency within the DOT, which was used for administrative support only. It became a completely independent federal agency, outside the DOT, through the 1974 Transportation Act. The President appoints the members of the board, with confirmation by the Senate. Terms of service are five years. The Board Chairman and Vice Chairman, are appointed from among the members and serve terms of two years each.

NTSB investigations have two goals - to determine the cause of an accident and to serve as the basis for recommendations that enhance safety. The board does not have the authority to impose new aviation regulations. Only the FAA has that power. Many of the board's recommendations through the years, however, have been implemented as new regulations, and are always carefully examined by the FAA, as well as the aviation industry.

When an airline accident occurs, the board dispatches a go team of experts in various phases of accident investigations. The teams typically consist of one member of the board and specialists in air traffic control, aircraft maintenance, aircraft operations, and someone trained in witness interrogation. The team spends whatever time is necessary at the crash scene. Attention then shifts to the NTSB laboratory where, among other things, the aircraft's cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder (the so-called black boxes) are deciphered. The cockpit voice recorder continuously records the last 30 minutes of cockpit conversation, both in the cockpit and between the cockpit and people in other aircraft, or on the ground. The flight data recorder maintains a continuous record of an aircraft's operating parameters, including altitude, speed and the position of key controls.

Typically, the NTSB holds a public hearing to collect additional information through witness testimony and various aviation experts. Hearings also permit the board to raise safety issues publicly.

A final report, stating the probable cause of the accident, is presented to the full board at a public meeting in Washington, D.C. This normally occurs several months after the accident. However, safety recommendations stemming from the accident sometimes precede the final report.

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