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Friday, April 1, 2016

Competition and Safety

James T. McKenna
Recent business travel brought me face-to-face with a number of Europeans, who surprisingly had one driving question for me, which in sum was: “Donald Trump? Really?”

The American spectacle of choosing this year’s Republican Party presidential candidate fascinates and mystifies them. In seeking to explain the U.S.’s hottest new reality show, I recalled my long-ago encounter with the Donald.

In the late 1980s, Eastern Air Lines was struggling to survive. To stay afloat, it agreed to sell its more viable Washington-New York-Boston shuttle operation to Trump. In May 1989, for $365 million, he got 21 Boeing 727s, gates and landing slots in the cities served and a bunch of employees from Eastern (which by then was in bankruptcy). He immediately bared the bluster that marks his current campaign.

With the ink still damp on the sale documents, the wheeler and dealer declared that the Trump Shuttle’s jets would be “diamonds in the sky.” (Promising luxury that shuttle customers didn’t want. Thus demand was for cheap, convenient flights. Understanding that, Eastern’s and Pan Am’s shuttles departed 30 min apart, and no customer hesitated to cross from one competitor to the other if late for a planned flight.)

Trump then claimed his fleet would be “the safest planes in the air.” (He implied that Pan Am was not safe, noting that it was losing money and its planes were old, while overlooking Eastern’s losses and use of the same type and vintage of jets.)

That broke a cardinal rule of aviation marketing: Don’t compete on safety. The practice is shunned for many reasons, not the least of which is the fickle nature of safety.

Competition and safety came to mind at Heli-Expo, when I read the latest issue of Vertical magazine. It includes an article by Elan Head – an outstanding reporter and writer – on the International Helicopter Safety Team, which was the focus of our February cover story (February 2016, page 32).

R&WI and Vertical are fierce competitors, so I was struck by how much our articles had in common.

We noted, “There is widespread agreement that we will miss the goal” that IHST set to reduce worldwide helicopter accidents 80% this year from a 2005 baseline. Head: “The only sure thing we can say about the IHST’s progress is that it did not achieve its target.”

In comparing fixed-wing safety with that of helicopters, Head observed: “Although members of the general public draw a clear distinction between Boeing 737s and Cessna 172s, to most of them a helicopter is just a helicopter.” We said the most troubling public face of our industry “is the image of a crushed, crumped, possibly burned helicopter.”

Head noted the challenges of effectively investigating helicopter accidents, most of which get scant attention from safety and regulatory agencies, adding “Without more in-depth accident investigation, however, it’s hard to say what structural and organizational pressures might have influenced pilots’ decision-making.” In my February article, I argued, “The key question is, what factors lead [pilots] not to land but to end up crashing.”

We pointed to FAA data “showing no sustained improvement in fatal accident rates over IHST’s tenure.” Head concluded, “Over the past decade, there has been no significant, sustained decline in either the total or fatal helicopter accident rates in the U.S.” She also said that the IHST’s claimed reduction in accident rates “is mostly illusory.” That team told the world Feb. 29 “the U.S. helicopter accident rate has been slashed by more than 50%.” Head’s report said, “Almost all of the improvement occurred in the first year after the IHST was founded, and was largely the result of using better flight hour estimates.”

Like us, Head praised the hard work and commitment of the many IHST volunteers around the world.

Several people at Heli-Expo told me that a top IHST official called Head’s report “one of the best aviation articles he’d ever read.” I concur. IHST officials disparaged our report, calling it a hatchet job.

Those officials should set egos aside. With separate articles in this industry’s two premier publications reaching the same conclusions, the question for IHST leaders clearly is, “What do you do now?”

What do you do now?

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