Mayday Mongering

COLLISION COURSE: THE TRUTH ABOUT AIRLINE SAFETY

By Ralph Nader and Wesley J. Smith

McGraw-Hill x 462pp x $21.95

The litany of air-safety problems presented in Collision Course: The Truth About Airline Safety is so relentless that it seems miraculous any passenger ever lands unharmed.

Authors Ralph Nader and Wesley J. Smith pile together every air-safety

issue that has gotten any attention in recent years. They rehash General Accounting Office and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reports, pumping drama into them with asides such as: "Additional people had to die." They paint the Federal Aviation Administration as a bureaucratic quagmire incapable of dealing promptly with matters such as requiring fire-resistant airplane interiors. "There can be little doubt," they declare, "that the FAA...is often reluctant to fully promote safety until tragedy forces its hand."

These exaggerations are built on grains of truth: It's true, for instance, that air safety could be improved. But there's no crisis at hand. The NTSB reports that in 1992, the large, scheduled airlines on which most folks fly had 33 fatalities--the lowest number since 1986. Deaths in commuter-aircraft and general-aviation accidents also dropped.

It's also true that the FAA tends to react after problems occur rather than to anticipate and head them off. A restructuring of the FAA has been recommended by both the airline commission appointed by the White House and by Vice-President Al Gore's Reinventing Government task force.

Collision Course concludes with a bid for readers to join a citizens' advocacy group founded by Nader--a sales pitch that doesn't enhance the book's credibility. Readers who plow through the dense prose to that point will learn a great deal--more, perhaps, than they ever wished--about air safety issues and the government's response to them. But--as you know if a plane has ever gotten you safely where you wanted to go--they'll be getting only half the story.