A Pilot's View of the Situation in the Air
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Now let's talk to someone who watches these stories unfold from the cockpit of a jumbo jet. Patrick Smith is a pilot. We caught up to him at home in Summerville, Massachusetts in between flights to Brazil. He also writes the column, "Ask the Pilot," on Salon.com.
Patrick Smith, we've just heard some criticisms that the FAA is too cozy with airlines. As a working pilot, do you think that's the case?
Mr. PATRICK SMITH (Pilot, Columnist, "Ask the Pilot"): To some extent, but I also feel that it has to be that way. Air safety is not banking and despite the appearance of a really blatant conflict of interest, the dynamics of commercial aviation are very unique and in my opinion require a very close working relationship between the airlines and their regulators.
I think a more confrontational relationship would almost be certain to increase and not decrease the number of scandals and violations. And I say that as a pilot, someone who works in an operational environment at an airline.
SEABROOK: Yeah, so as a pilot, what part of the responsibility for safety is yours?
Mr. SMITH: Well, the safety checks really begin offstage, as it were, in the briefing room or in the crew lounge when you're looking at the paperwork and you're checking the weather and you're checking the flight plan and looking for any deferred maintenance items that are affecting this flight.
SEABROOK: Things that should be fixed but not yet, we can still fly?
Mr. SMITH: Correct.
SEABROOK: So I gather it's pretty much a usual thing to fly a plane that's got a maintenance problem.
Mr. SMITH: Right. I mean, airplanes are extremely complex machines and it can't be expected that they're always going to be running at the 100 percent reliability. There are certain components that will sometimes be inoperative. And it's perfectly acceptable to fly with a component deferred as it's called.
There's a book on every airplane, a huge volume that very carefully stipulates which items can be deferred and under exactly which flight conditions and for how long.
SEABROOK: You know, it's awfully hard as an airline passenger to know what to think about all of this. I mean, here's your…
Mr. SMITH: Well…
SEABROOK: …big chance, here's your big chance. Tell us, Patrick Smith, how should we feel?
Mr. SMITH: It's very tempting to misinterpret these recent events as a sign of some kind of major systemic breakdown or a disaster that was narrowly averted. I'll agree that for an airline to take hundreds of planes out of service and cancel thousands of flights is radical and it seems to imply this state of imminent danger. But that's really not what we're seeing.
The airplanes were not in an unsafe condition. They were taken out of service entirely as a preventive measure. I think we need to stand back for a second and look at the big picture, which is that the system as it stands is astonishingly safe. We're right now amidst the safest ever stretch since really the dawn of the jet age.
I mean, the last large scale accident involving a major U.S. airline was the crash of American Flight 587 in 2001, and that was about 43 million flights ago. One of the things that worries me is that when there is a crash, a serious crash - and there will be - I hope that people take the time out to acknowledge that to some extent, you know, that is the inevitable and meanwhile we are just coming off of this safest ever stretch in the history of modern aviation.
SEABROOK: Patrick Smith is the author of the book "Ask the Pilot." You can find his column on Salon.com. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. SMITH: You're welcome.
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