Airlines seek to reassure travelers Customer inquiries swamp switchboards

The Tragedy Of Flight 800

July 21, 1996|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The phones have been ringing hour after hour, 100 calls Thursday alone, in the Dallas offices of the International Airline Passengers Association. "If you were me," callers ask, "would you fly today?"

In the wake of the TWA Flight 800 explosion, America's air travelers are looking for reassurance.

Nerves are frayed. Headlines have been grim all year:

A jet disappears into the Everglades.

Control-tower computer screens have unexplained fits of darkness.

An engine whirls apart and slices into a passenger cabin.

A Paris-bound jetliner explodes in a ball of fire just minutes out of New York.

The disasters don't care how wealthy you are, what power you command, whether your friends include the president of the United States.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown died in a mountainside crash in Dubrovnik in April.

Hoyt Jones, a northeast region vice president for Domino's Pizza, flew TWA from Baltimore to New York early on the morning after Flight 800 went down off Long Island. He was sure he would be safe -- but he noted that he has made an appointment to discuss life insurance.

"In light of this incident," Jones said, "it really makes you think."

For a long stretch, U.S. airlines had no major crashes, and airline safety was not a hot topic. But in the last several months, disaster has piled atop disaster.

Federal investigators have uncovered the causes of some of this year's tragedies -- and that only gave passengers new things to worry about: What, besides suitcases, is being loaded into the cargo hold? How old is the plane? Is it a DC-9? Is airport security really doing any good?

Mary Ann Schiavo, who recently resigned as the Transportation Department's inspector general, said last week that her staff members routinely breached security at American airports.

"This whole summer has created a sense of insecurity for the American public," said Geoff Collins, spokesman for the International Airline Passengers Association, a passenger advocacy group.

Already, fliers had been grimly educated about the dangers of lightning, wind shear, ice on the wings. With the TWA explosion came a new fear: terrorism.

"Americans by and large have always assumed that terrorism happens overseas," Collins said. "We don't have to deal with it here." But with the reports that the TWA jet may have been blown out of the sky by terrorists, "suddenly people have been hit right between the eyes. Maybe we're not exempt anymore. Maybe we're not isolated anymore.

"We all know that from time to time a plane will crash," Collins said. "But we don't really think about it. Suddenly, a plane goes down and everyone thinks, 'Oh, wow, that can happen.' "

Heightened anxiety

The result is heightened anxiety -- but probably only in the short term, said Don MacGregor, a research psychologist at Decision Research, in Eugene, Ore.

What the public wants now, he said, is for investigators to move fast. "The system has to react quickly, to reassure," he said. "It's key that people believe the government understands what caused this crash."

Americans have come to expect answers, MacGregor said. National Transportation Safety Board investigators took only days to figure out that oxygen canisters were the likely cause of the ValuJet crash. Timothy McVeigh was arrested within hours of the Oklahoma City explosion. Terrorists were brought to trial after the World Trade Center bombing.

"The worst outcome" as investigators dissect this crash, MacGregor said, "is that it was a bomb but we have no idea where it came from; we have no idea how it got on the plane; we have no idea who put it there."

Federal officials and aviation experts stress that there is no pattern to this year's disasters. But the cumulative effect weighs on travelers.

"When accidents cluster together, people may think these are connected when they're actually random occurrences," said Kathleen Tierney, co-director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.

Despite the unrelentingly bad news, most Americans believe that flying is an extremely safe way to travel.

A Newsweek magazine poll taken after May's ValuJet crash found that 81 percent were no less likely to fly commercial airlines because of the accident. Sixty-four percent called commercial aviation's safety record excellent or good.

"When over a million people a day fly safely to and from their destinations," Collins said, "there's obviously a lot being done right.

But the public isn't so confident about its government regulators. When asked in the same survey how effective government regulations were at making airlines safe, less than half of the public -- 46 percent -- rated them excellent or good.

Government officials' reactions to this year's air disasters haven't helped boost public confidence.

On the day after the ValuJet crash killed 110, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena came to Miami to declare the airline safe, a carrier he had used and would use again.

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