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Airlines seek to reassure travelers Customer inquiries swamp switchboards; THE TRAGEDY OF FLIGHT 800


The phones have been ringing hour after hour, 100 calls Thursday alone, in the Dallas offices of the International Airline Passengers Association. "If you were me," callers ask, "would you fly today?"

In the wake of the TWA Flight 800 explosion, America's air travelers are looking for reassurance.

Nerves are frayed. Headlines have been grim all year:

A jet disappears into the Everglades.

Control-tower computer screens have unexplained fits of darkness.

An engine whirls apart and slices into a passenger cabin.

A Paris-bound jetliner explodes in a ball of fire just minutes out of New York.

The disasters don't care how wealthy you are, what power you command, whether your friends include the president of the United States.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown died in a mountainside crash in Dubrovnik in April.

Hoyt Jones, a northeast region vice president for Domino's Pizza, flew TWA from Baltimore to New York early on the morning after Flight 800 went down off Long Island. He was sure he would be safe -- but he noted that he has made an appointment to discuss life insurance.

"In light of this incident," Jones said, "it really makes you think."

For a long stretch, U.S. airlines had no major crashes, and airline safety was not a hot topic. But in the last several months, disaster has piled atop disaster.

Federal investigators have uncovered the causes of some of this year's tragedies -- and that only gave passengers new things to worry about: What, besides suitcases, is being loaded into the cargo hold? How old is the plane? Is it a DC-9? Is airport security really doing any good?

Mary Ann Schiavo, who recently resigned as the Transportation Department's inspector general, said last week that her staff members routinely breached security at American airports.

"This whole summer has created a sense of insecurity for the American public," said Geoff Collins, spokesman for the International Airline Passengers Association, a passenger advocacy group.

Already, fliers had been grimly educated about the dangers of lightning, wind shear, ice on the wings. With the TWA explosion came a new fear: terrorism.

"Americans by and large have always assumed that terrorism happens overseas," Collins said. "We don't have to deal with it here." But with the reports that the TWA jet may have been blown out of the sky by terrorists, "suddenly people have been hit right between the eyes. Maybe we're not exempt anymore. Maybe we're not isolated anymore.

"We all know that from time to time a plane will crash," Collins said. "But we don't really think about it. Suddenly, a plane goes down and everyone thinks, 'Oh, wow, that can happen.' "

Heightened anxiety

The result is heightened anxiety -- but probably only in the short term, said Don MacGregor, a research psychologist at Decision Research, in Eugene, Ore.

What the public wants now, he said, is for investigators to move fast. "The system has to react quickly, to reassure," he said. "It's key that people believe the government understands what caused this crash."

Americans have come to expect answers, MacGregor said. National Transportation Safety Board investigators took only days to figure out that oxygen canisters were the likely cause of the ValuJet crash. Timothy McVeigh was arrested within hours of the Oklahoma City explosion. Terrorists were brought to trial after the World Trade Center bombing.

"The worst outcome" as investigators dissect this crash, MacGregor said, "is that it was a bomb but we have no idea where it came from; we have no idea how it got on the plane; we have no idea who put it there."

Federal officials and aviation experts stress that there is no pattern to this year's disasters. But the cumulative effect weighs on travelers.

"When accidents cluster together, people may think these are connected when they're actually random occurrences," said Kathleen Tierney, co-director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.

Despite the unrelentingly bad news, most Americans believe that flying is an extremely safe way to travel.

A Newsweek magazine poll taken after May's ValuJet crash found that 81 percent were no less likely to fly commercial airlines because of the accident. Sixty-four percent called commercial aviation's safety record excellent or good.

"When over a million people a day fly safely to and from their destinations," Collins said, "there's obviously a lot being done right.

But the public isn't so confident about its government regulators. When asked in the same survey how effective government regulations were at making airlines safe, less than half of the public -- 46 percent -- rated them excellent or good.

Government officials' reactions to this year's air disasters haven't helped boost public confidence.

On the day after the ValuJet crash killed 110, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena came to Miami to declare the airline safe, a carrier he had used and would use again.

But within weeks, it was clear that ValuJet's safety record was spotty, and at government behest the airline suspended operation.

'A lot of posturing'

"We're seeing a lot of posturing from some top people," said Mike Overly, editor of Aviation Safety Monitor. "We're seeing a lot statements no one can back up."

That has undermined the Federal Aviation Administration's credibility. Many Americans were surprised to learn, in the aftermath of the ValuJet crash, that the FAA had two mandates: to regulate airlines and to promote them. The agency now says it will dedicate itself to regulation alone.

Collins, of the airline passenger association, said the FAA, worried about its survival, will be listening more to the public.

"The FAA has always been a reactive organization," he said. "You're going to see the FAA be a more proactive organization."

Public awareness

This year's disasters, Collins said, have taught the public to educate itself and ask questions. He hears them in his office.

"They call and say, 'What do you think about flying on a 26-year-old plane?' We say, 'Well, if it's been maintained and all inspection rules have been followed, it should be fine.' But the question is, 'Have they?' It's very hard for the consumer to know."

Another problem, Collins said, is that no one knows the life expectancy of an airliner.

"We're in the great experiment right now. Thirty years from now, they're going to be able to look back and say, 'This type of aircraft has a life expectancy of X. It should have so many takeoffs and landings and then it should be retired.' But you and I are the guinea pigs."

He predicts that the FAA "in the next year or two is going to come out with some mandatory retirement times."

"As we fly these aging aircraft," Collins said, "we're going to see more incidents occur."

While the FAA is strengthening safety regulations, Collins said, consumers must demand more from the airlines and from government.

"They need to be a little less complacent about believing everything's in place," Collins said. "They need to make the airlines more responsible.

"If they're walking through a security gate and they think no one's paying attention to the X-ray machines, they need to find a supervisor. They need to call the FAA and say we expect more. They need to write their congressman or senator."

Meanwhile, even nervous Americans will continue to fly. It's safe and efficient, said Rudy Kapustin, an aviation safety consultant and former investigator in charge for the National Transportation Safety Board. And travelers should relax, he said.

"These are no guarantees," Kapustin said. "Nothing's 100 percent safe -- not your car, not your washing machine, not your lawn mower. They're machines, and machines break down. They're run by humans and humans sometimes make mistakes."

"I would no more worry about getting on an airplane than I would worry about mowing the lawn," he said. "Actually, mowers can take your feet off. I might worry more about mowing the lawn."

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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