More Safety Measures, More Risk?

Three weeks after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared without a sound, the world and its collection of governments still have no direct proof of where the plane is. But the whole episode brings up the usual discussion about airline safety. Could the crash have been avoided? Could better oversight or screening of the pilots have helped evade such a disaster?

Even though the airliner was flying between two Asian countries, the safety protocol had American fingerprints. The U.S. has exported its strict aviation regulations around the world very quietly and with great success. Any plane that wants to land at a U.S. airport needs to comply with regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration, which requires everything from cockpit doors of a certain weight to defibrillators on every flight. Even airlines that never land in the U.S. usually follow suit.

Those requirements make air travel extremely safe—far safer than riding in a car. The chance of dying in a plane crash is somewhere around 1 in around 15 million (depending on the airline and its safety record). You’re more than one thousand times more likely to die in a car crash.

But those requirements that trickle out of the U.S. also make air travel a little too safe. Every $5,000 defibrillator that a small airline has to install and maintain on its plane means that it might not be able to hire engineers or recruit the best pilots. With inflight service, spending on peripheral safety measures means spending less on amenities like food service or cheaper tickets. Lower prices and better services would open up air travel to more people, which might help an airline like Kenyan Air—currently one of the lowest-rated airlines for safety—grow into a bigger, more popular carrier.

Which is not to say that safety should be compromised for in-flight bottle service and fancy light fixtures. Large international airlines from big industrialized countries don’t have to choose between safety and decent quality. The smaller airlines from developing countries shouldn’t have to, either. But as long as they have to make compromises for repetitive signage and expensive smoke detectors, it’s worth wondering if safety at stratospheric levels could come down in altitude just slightly, enough to open air travel to more people and cash in on the economic and innovation boost that would follow.