If one searches the internet for responsibility +”tort reform,” (using the Google search engine as of 05/23/09) one gets nearly 100,000 hits. Many of these pieces were written in support of tort reform. For the purposes of this piece, I will define tort reform as any attempt to reduce tort litigation, particularly efforts to do so by reducing damage awards. On many levels the rallying cry of personal responsibility is an attractive one. Who, after all, wants to see plaintiffs being unjustly rewarded, or defendants unfairly punished? These are all fairly basic questions. Why then am I posing them in a blog devoted to airline safety issues?
Because, issues of responsibility in an economy as specialized as ours are inaccessible to most of us. Most people accept that we should bear some responsibility for damages we cause to ourselves. But exactly how is the average man on the street to assess issues of risk when it comes to purchasing an airline ticket? I suppose we could require passengers to review safety and maintenance records. Except that few of us are competent to understand what those records say.
Who then is to be held responsible for something like this report from the Dallas Morning News that hundreds of mechanics around the country may have been improperly certified and in some cases dangerously unqualified? The FAA will not be held responsible. Not in any real sense. And yet, most of us assume that because the federal government is regulating the certification of aircraft mechanics, that they will be effectively regulated.
Apparently not, as many mechanic certification programs have taken on the character of “diploma mills, allowing possibly unqualified and untrained mechanics to gain licenses that allow them to work on aircraft without supervision.” This bitter draft is not made any sweeter by the fact that the FAA does not track mechanic’s employment histories. There are potentially hundreds of mechanics around the country whose actual capability to maintain an aircraft is uncertain, and the FAA has no idea where they are.
At least one air carrier so far has found tragedy by assuming that an FAA certification was worth the paper it was printed on. In 2005, 20 people lost their lives when a craft headed for the Bahamas from Miami lost a wing. After the incident, investigators found that one of the mechanics employed by Chalk’s Ocean Airways, responsible for maintaining the craft, had been certified by a “diploma mill” called St. George Aviation. Following the incident the FAA retested that mechanic. He failed that re-test…twice.
It is true that air travel is still the safest form of transport. And hopefully airlines are ensuring that the certifications of those they employ mean something. But we should not assume that they are. In fact, only this week, allegations have surfaced against Gulfstream, parent company of a commuter airline facing $1.3 million in penalties for crew scheduling and maintenance violations. It seems likely that counsel for the families and loved ones of crash victims will now be scrutinizing maintenance certifications closely during discovery. Airlines are common carriers and owe their passengers the highest duty of care. Should there be tragedies in the future like the Chalk’s Ocean Airways Flight 101 incident, we should take care to hold responsible the only people who could have prevented it, and yet failed to; the operators of the airline.