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When looking at the world of aviation, it is a field that is huge when it comes to rules and regulations. It is taken very seriously and is focused on providing the safest, most efficient mode of transportation to many places around the globe. When there are more than 25,000 flights a day in the United States alone, the risk of mid-air collisions, poor decision making, terrorism, and many other hazards threaten the safety and security of passengers. To address these issues, the federal government has taken the responsibility of regulating the aviation industry to prevent these accidents and incidents from happening again. This system, however, is not the most perfect and accidents and incidents do occur every now and then, but the history of these dilemmas can help the industry learn from the mistakes and implement legislation to prevent errors from happening in the future. The United States has seen a lot of terrible crashes, but three major accidents, the mid-air collision of TWA and United Airlines in 1956, the crash landing of United Airlines in 1978, and the crash of ValuJet into the Everglades in 1996, brought a lot of change in the aviation industry and with it, major changes in law and regulation that are still in practice today.
The first crash to be discussed is TWA and United. In 1956, the mid-air collision of TWA Flight 2 and United Airlines Flight 718 shocked the United States. Because of a lack of awareness and failing to understand instruction from air traffic control, the two airliners collided and crashed over the Grand Canyon. 128 lives were lost just like that, and two planes destroyed. How did this crash occur and why was there no system in place to prevent such a thing from happening? The answer is that there was no governing body that had sole responsibility over the airspace in the U.S. and air traffic control was not equipped to handle the heavier air traffic seen in the 1950s (Air Crash Investigation S12E06 Grand Canyon Collision United Airlines Flight 718 and Trans World A, 2013). At the time of the crash, the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) was the federal agency overseeing aviation, not the FAA that has authority today. The CAA did not have sole control over American airspace, but rather they shared it with the military. Due to the CAA’s lack of sole regulatory authority and inability to regulate airspace as well as the air traffic control to ensure the safety of passengers and crew, this collision occurred, and brought a change in how the entire world of the aviation industry would be controlled.
The response to this accident ended with the federal government passing the Federal Aviation Act of 1958. This act did away with the CAA and set the FAA in motion. The FAA gained full authority over all U.S. airspace and was tasked with modernizing air traffic control. Realizing the problems with ATC, the FAA replaced the current civilian ATC system at the time with NAS En Route Stage A which focused on bringing modern systems, such as radar and radio communications, into play. The implementation of nationwide radar was one of the biggest innovations after the crash. It allowed air traffic control to be able to track and direct planes anywhere in the United States, creating a better strategy for collision avoidance (Air Crash Investigation S12E06 Grand Canyon Collision United Airlines Flight 718 and Trans World A, 2013). In addition to radar, the FAA established the Central Flow Control Facility which compiled weather and air traffic data to detect potential threats and recommend solutions (A Brief History of the FAA). The FAA not only addressed airspace and ATC, but also began facing bigger challenges, such as hijacking, noise pollution, and system delays. The FAA began creating regulations that addressed these issues, including making hijacking an illegal act and establishing aircraft noise standards. In 1970, the Airport and Airway Development Act made the FAA in charge of an airport aid program using a special fund (A Brief History of the FAA). This act allowed them to expand airports and relieve the pressure on ATC to get more flights out in a shorter period. This increased safety by a huge amount by giving air traffic controllers more time to think, as well as reducing the amount of flight delays. This change in control marked a major milestone in aviation law. The federal government could now come together as one authoritative body to establish laws and standards that would mitigate the hazardous risks and to produce regulation to create consistency across the aviation industry.
Once the FAA had been established and air space had been more properly regulated, the amount of air crashes decreased significantly and aviation became much safer. However, multiple hazards had yet to be identified and unfortunately, they were not recognized until after further accidents occurred. This brings about the second accident that occurred. The crash landing of United Airlines Flight 173 in 1978 was one that lead to major changes in the way crews are trained. As the plane was making its decent into Portland International Airport, the DC-10 was rapidly burning fuel, eventually losing all their fuel and crash landing into a neighborhood six miles from the airport, killing ten passengers (Air Crash Investigation S12E08 Focused on Failure United Airlines Flight 173, 2013). Taking a look at the NTSB report, it stated the following: “The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the accident was the failure of the captain to monitor properly the aircraft’s fuel state and to properly respond to the low fuel state and the crew-member’s advisories regarding fuel state. This resulted in fuel exhaustion to all engines. His inattention resulted from preoccupation with a landing gear malfunction and preparations for a possible landing emergency. Contributing to the accident was the failure of the other two flight crewmembers either to fully comprehend the criticality of the fuel state or to successfully communicate their concern to the captain” (Aircraft and Accident Report – United Airlines, Inc., McDonnell-Douglas DC-9-6, N8082U, Portland, Oregon, December 28, 1978, 1979) . This lack of communication in the cockpit had been an ongoing threat for airlines and this crash ignited an important change in crew training.
After the crash, NASA developed a program called Cockpit Resource Management, later renamed Crew Resource Management, to promote better communication and teamwork in the cockpit during emergency situations. Airlines adopted the program and began implementing them into their crew training. After the implementation of CRM, the FAA released an Advisory Circular outlining new training procedures, promoting reinforcement, and suggesting various curriculums, such as conflict resolution and team building, that airlines should use in their flight training. In addition to U.S. law, CRM has become an international standard that air carriers and other operators are expected to comply with in their training classes. ICAO has incorporated CRM into Annex 6, Operations of Aircraft (Crew Resource Management, 2004). The annex requires that:
- “The training program shall also include training in knowledge and skills related to human performance” (ICAO Human Factors Training Manual, 2003).
- “The training program shall be given on a recurrent basis, as determined by the State of the Operator” (ICAO Human Factors Training Manual, 2003).
CRM is a critical component of crew training because it does not focus as much on the technical side, but rather on the human side. CRM trains pilots how to handle high pressure situations, manage the cockpit, communicate with each other, and work as team; skills that are vital to preventing human error in a high stress environment. Non-compliance would not only break an international requirement, but also risk the safety of passengers and crew (Crew Resource Management, 2004). Had the crew of United Airlines Flight 173 had the proper training on CRM as most pilots do today, then the crash could have been avoided.
As time passed, aviation became much safer as airlines became more proactive in their operations and began identifying hazards before they grew into something fatal.
Although accident prevention in the industry was high, one realm of aviation, the transportation of hazardous goods, had not been fully considered and thought about. This topic brings up the third accident: The crash of ValuJet Flight 592 into the Everglades in 1996. This flight was a regularly scheduled flight that went from Miami to Atlanta. The plane was incorrectly loaded with oxygen generators and shortly after takeoff, they caught fire and began spreading smoke into the cabin and cockpit. As the fire spread, systems were destroyed and the lack of oxygen most likely led to the incapacitation of the crew, eventually bringing down the jet and killing everyone onboard (Air Crash Investigation S12E02 Fire in the Hold Valujet Flight 592, 2012). The NTSB’s investigation revealed the probable cause was the failure to properly package and stow hazardous materials. There were many careless actions and ignored procedures that brought the aircraft down, including the actions of SabreTech, the company tasked with the shipping of the generators, and the flight crew who unlawfully accepted the cargo onboard without checking.
SabreTech’s maintenance workers had an obvious neglect for instruction and procedure. ValuJet instructed them to cap each oxygen generator with a plastic safety cap to prevent accidental activation, but the workers disregarded the direction and signed off on the paperwork without placing the caps on the generators. To further add to the chain of broken procedures, the crew accepted the cargo knowing it was against the FAA’s regulation to have discharged oxygen containers on board and that commercial airliners were forbade from carrying such hazardous material because they could contain poisonous toxins (Air Crash Investigation S12E02 Fire in the Hold Valujet Flight 592, 2012). Despite the threats, the pilot and crew allowed the cargo on board, sealing the fate of 105 passengers on board the flight.
As a result of the accident, major changes were put in place to address the transportation of hazardous materials. Materials like oxygen generators are no longer allowed to be carried as cargo on commercial airliners and the FAA mandated that airlines install fire detection and suppression systems in the cargo holds of their aircraft. The NTSB came in and suggested that airlines conduct better training for those workers who handle hazardous materials and ensure they understand the importance of procedures and proper packaging of these materials. It was revealed that the NTSB had suggested that the FAA order fire extinguishers and detection systems in cargo holds eight years earlier, but the FAA had failed to follow through (Air Crash Investigation S12E02 Fire in the Hold Valujet Flight 592, 2012). If the FAA had acted back then, maybe then the fire could have been extinguished before damaging major systems and causing an accident.
The industry learned a lesson from the prosecution of SabreTech. The company was slammed with a major lawsuit after the crash. They were charged with negligence, and they ended up going out of business. One basis of the trial was that their employees neglected to follow regulation clearly outlined in 49 CFR 171.2. The law states:
“No person may certify that a hazardous material is offered for transportation in commerce in accordance with the requirements of this subchapter unless the hazardous material is properly classed, described, packaged, marked, labeled, and in condition for shipment as required or authorized by applicable requirements of this subchapter or an exemption or special permit, approval, or registration issued under this subchapter or subchapter A of this chapter” (49 CFR 171.2 – General requirements).
The cargo handlers’ failure to put caps on the oxygen generators broke this regulation.
“No person may offer or accept a hazardous material for transportation in commerce unless the hazardous material is properly classed, described, packaged, marked, labeled, and in condition for shipment as required or authorized by applicable requirements of this subchapter or an exemption or special permit, approval, or registration issued under this subchapter or subchapter A of this chapter” (49 CFR 171.2 – General requirements).
Both the cargo handlers and the crew broke this regulation when 1) the cargo was delivered to the aircraft to be transported and 2) when the crew accepted the cargo knowing that the oxygen generators were not in proper condition.
SabreTech ended up being charged with murder and manslaughter due to their employees’ negligence of the cargo and were forced to pay $11 million in penalties. This was the first case of its kind where a company was criminally charged due to their involvement in an air crash. Although the outcome of their actions was tragic, this goes to show other airlines that this sort of recklessness and carelessness will be punished. This pushed companies to be stricter with their employees and company procedures (Hamilton, 2011). Overall, the crash of ValuJet taught the industry valuable lessons about procedure, negligence, and the transportation of hazardous material.
The collision of TWA and United, the crash landing of United Airlines Flight 173, and the crash of ValuJet 592 all brought big changes in aviation law. Despite the unfortunate devastation that comes with air crashes, there are important lessons can be learned, especially from these three accidents, that lead to a safer industry. The industry learns from accidents, and the unfortunate lives lost have helped shape aviation into the safe, reliable industry it is today.
- A Brief History of the FAA. (2015, February 19). Retrieved October 13, 2016, from https://www.faa.gov/about/history/brief_history/
- Air Crash Investigation S12E06 Grand Canyon Collision United Airlines Flight 718 and Trans World A. (2013).
- Air Crash Investigation S12E08 Focused on Failure United Airlines Flight 173. (2013).
- Air Crash Investigation S12E02 Fire in the Hold Valujet Flight 592. (2012).
- Aircraft and Accident Report – United Airlines, Inc., McDonnell-Douglas DC-9-6, N8082U, Portland, Oregon, December 28, 1978. (1979) (1st ed., p. 29). Washington D.C. Retrieved from http://lessonslearned.faa.gov/UAL173/AAR79-07.pdf
- Crew Resource Management. (2004) (pp. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13). Retrieved from http://www.faa.gov/documentLibrary/media/Advisory_Circular/AC120-51e.pdf
- ICAO Human Factors Training Manual. (2003) (p. 221). Retrieved from https://www.scribd.com/document/87856065/ICAO-Human-FactorsTrng-Manual-Rev-9 03-Chapt-2-CRM-TEM
- 49 CFR 171.2 – General requirements. (n.d.). Retrieved October 13, 2016, from https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/49/171.2
- Hamilton, J. (2011). Practical Aviation Law (5th ed., pp. 91, 92). Newcastle: ASA.
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