Three years ago, when the Federal Aviation Administration rejected a recommendation that airlines install smoke detectors and fire suppression systems in cargo holds, it offered one simple reason: Too expensive.
But the plain truth is that the safety systems would cost U.S. airline passengers less than $1 each per flight.
And the lack of them may have cost the lives of 110 passengers on ValuJet Flight 592. Investigators believe that a fire raging in the plane’s forward cargo hold, fueled by 144 oxygen generators that shouldn’t have been there, could have caused the crash of the aging DC-9 on May 11.
The FAA has decided to review its 1993 decision.
“There’s a phrase you hear in the airline business, and it’s kind of depressing” said Bill Waldock, director of the Aviation Safety Resource Center at Embry-Riddle University in Prescott, Ariz. “If it’s cheaper to fix something, they’ll fix it. If it’s cheaper to kill you, they’ll kill you.”
The FAA’s technical staff set the price of designing, purchasing and installing two smoke detectors and a fire suppression system in each cargo hold at roughly $100,000 per airplane. Other experts say that figure is wildly overstated. They figure the cost at $50,000 or less per plane.
According to FAA figures, 3,500 of the 4,200 planes in service with U.S. airlines operate with so-called Class D cargo holds - holds that aren’t equipped with either smoke detectors or fire suppression systems, but instead are supposed to seal out oxygen to starve a nascent fire.
If, as the FAA estimates, it cost $100,000 to upgrade each plane, the total bill would be $350 million. For each of the 548 million passengers who flew on U.S. carriers in 1995, that works out to about 64 cents.
“Let’s face it, it’s in the FAA’s interest to appear safe,” said Bob Flocke, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents 45,000 pilots working for 36 U.S. airlines. “And I’ve got to say that, for the most part, the FAA does a good job on safety.”
But the agency moves slowly. It took five years - from 1988 to 1993 - to reject the National Transportation Safety Board’s smoke and fire recommendations.
And sometimes its decisions seem based more on economics than safety.
“Remember, this is a bottom-line business,” Flocke said. “I think safety wins its share of decisions, but there are certainly times when the bottom line wins out. This was one of those times.”