WASHINGTON - Last year was the worst ever for the nation’s major airlines financially, with losses of $11.3 billion.
It was also their safest year ever.
There were no fatalities, either among passengers or people on the ground. Only nine passengers were seriously injured, most in turbulence or on evacuation slides after what turned out to be otherwise minor incidents. And the Federal Aviation Administration, which has nearly a dozen financially ailing airlines under safety watches, says all of the early warning indicators it measures — from the number of legally deferred maintenance items to crew training results — are showing improvement.
But while celebrating a golden period of safety, many in the airline industry express fears about the future. They say that spending on research, equipment and training programs that are necessary to keep pushing accident rates down has been reduced to pay for increased security since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Last week, federal regulators expressed concerns about contract maintenance operations that the airlines are increasingly relying on to save money.
And industry experts say complacency may lead employees to let down their guard and airline executives to eventually question whether the money they’ve spent on safety while cutting so many other things can’t be shaved a bit.
‘‘The absolute focus from a national resource point of view is being poured into security,’’ said Stuart Matthews, president of the Flight Safety
Foundation. ‘‘Safety is a never-ending task. I’m not going to say the system isn’t safe, but if we don’t pour money into safety, we’ll plateau.’’
In some ways, the financial crisis has contributed to the improved safety record, airline executives and the FAA said. For instance, many airlines have grounded older planes and laid off pilots and mechanics with less experience, leaving them with the most modern aircraft systems and least maintenance needs and the most seasoned employees to operate and maintain their planes.
Another factor, airline managers and employees say, is fear. They understand that a financially troubled airline may be just one crash away from going out of business.
Many remember the downfalls of Eastern Air Lines and Pan American World Airways during the airline industry’s last major slump, in the early 1990s, amid cutbacks in safety and maintenance budgets and serious labor-management clashes. Eastern was indicted by a federal grand jury in 1990 on charges of failing to perform maintenance and falsifying records, and it went out of business six months later.
‘‘We in the industry have learned the hard way in the past, and we don’t want to go down that road again,’’ said Joe Chronic, vice president for flight operations at America West Airlines, which avoided a post-Sept. 11 bankruptcy when it received a $380 million loan guarantee from the government.
The last major jetliner crash was on Nov. 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 lost its vertical tail section while climbing away from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, killing 265 people. This year, there has been one fatal commercial crash when a US Airways Express turboprop plane operated by a small regional carrier, Air Midwest, crashed Jan. 8 at Charlotte, N.C., killing 21 people.
The National Transportation Safety Board counted 34 commercial airline accidents last year, but most were designated minor, such as a flight attendant breaking an ankle in turbulence. The board designated only one accident as ‘‘major’’ — a Federal Express Corp. cargo crash at Tallahassee, Fla., that destroyed the plane, and the only ‘‘serious’’ passenger aircraft accident was on Aug. 28, when an America West plane ran off the runway at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
While 2002 was an unusually good year, accident rates in recent years have generally been declining to the point that they are stubbornly defying efforts to reduce them even more.
Pilots today fly with safety equipment that was only dreamed of a decade ago, such as the enhanced ground proximity warning system, which alerts pilots when they are flying too low.
Aircraft training simulators are so realistic now that palms sweat. Training programs stress human interaction with the aircraft and with other employees. Airline self-reporting programs have persuaded pilots that they can report, without fear of retribution, accidents that almost happened, allowing chronic safety problems to be solved before they result in deaths. And modern flight data recorders can be fed into computer programs that can spot various flight anomalies that even pilots may not be seeing.
The major airlines have in recent years developed multitiered safety programs that also factor in the basic human qualities of instinct, perception and crew conversation and rumor and measure changes in factors that might not be considered safety items, such as on-time performance, flight diversions, lost-time injuries and customer satisfaction.
On top of those, and its own regular inspection programs, the FAA has developed over the last decade an inspection program for airlines undergoing labor disputes, strikes or bankruptcy. Inspectors shift to look for possible signs that financial problems are having an effect on safety.
The FAA has a list of 21 areas of concern, including any signs of a rising trend in deficiencies in maintenance, inspection or aircraft alterations programs. These are measured under a confidential program called CASS — Continuing Analysis and Surveillance System.
Other items that may indicate a safety concern are an increase in employee or management turnover, pilot maintenance complaints that go unheeded, revisions to maintenance or inspection manuals, changes in training programs, delays in meeting payrolls, closing of maintenance bases, increases in passenger complaints, media reports about the airline’s financial woes and increases in legally deferred maintenance items.
‘‘There are no indications that the airlines are cutting corners anywhere,’’ said Nicholas Sabatini, FAA associate administrator for regulation and certification.
That last item — called a ‘‘minimum equipment list’’ — has been one of the bright spots. Records show that these MEL deferrals, marked with yellow stickers in the cockpit, have been going down on financially troubled airlines. Neither the FAA nor the airlines will disclose exact numbers.
‘‘I’ve noticed fewer yellow stickers in my cockpits,’’ said Rory Kay, a United Airlines pilot who serves as the United safety chairman for the Air Line Pilots Association.
Safety experts at American and United, the nation’s two largest carriers, say their budgets have been increased even though those airlines sustained the two largest annual losses in airline history last year — $3.5 billion and $3.2 billion, respectively.
Hank Krakowski, vice president for safety and security at United, which is reorganizing in bankruptcy, said he was allowed to hire a number of quality-assurance inspectors whose chief job was to search out any indications that financial problems were beginning to reduce the airline’s safety.