Runway Safety, Fuel Tanks, Passenger Protections Take Back Seat to Security

When it comes to improving air travel, improved security may not equal safety.

In the rush to implement policies to help prevent a repeat of last month's terrorist attacks,  work to enhance non-security related problems has been pushed aside. 

Efforts to prevent planes from entering the wrong runway, reduce the risk of fuel-tank explosions and give pilots more rest have been placed on the back burner in favor of plans to strengthen baggage screening and airport security.

"Everybody is just so overwhelmed by the problems of the moment [that] you just ignore everything else," said Darryl Jenkins, director of George Washington University's Aviation Institute.

Despite the recent preoccupation with combating terrorism in the skies, the problems that existed before Sept. 11 have not gone away. For example, 118 people were killed in Milan, Italy, earlier this month after an SAS airliner collided with a business jet that had mistakenly taxied onto the runway as the larger plane was taking off.

In the United States, the National Transportation Safety Board has pushed the Federal Aviation Administration to prevent planes, vehicles and individuals from entering runways by mistake.

A second priority for the safety board is reducing the risk of fire in airplane fuel tanks. Federal investigators blamed the 1996 explosion of TWA Flight 800 on a fuel-tank fire.

An FAA advisory committee looking at fuel-tank rules postponed its planned November meeting until January because agency officials were too busy with airline-security issues.

Pilots still worry about delays in implementing new FAA rules restricting the hours they work. Current rules allow pilots to work 16 hours a day, eight of them actually flying a plane. Delays can extend pilots' workdays beyond the maximum.

"There's no question we lost some momentum on the question of fatigue and moving the FAA toward updated rules," said Capt. Rich Rubin of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, which represents 28,000 pilots.

"Right now, it's appropriate for the FAA and all the airlines to be concentrating on the immediate threat of security," Rubin added.

The NTSB is scheduled Tuesday to approve a final report on the crash of American Airlines Flight 1420 in Little Rock, Ark., which killed 11 people. Pilot fatigue will be one of the safety issues discussed.

The debate on Capitol Hill has changed as well. Congress passed a $15 billion airline aid bill after Sept. 11, while legislation to spur airline competition and provide additional consumer protections for passengers has languished. 

The airline industry, which has lost 100,000 employees, 20 percent of its flights and millions of passengers, has supported improved security as a way to get people back on planes.

"For those of us in the aviation community, we have the task to do everything possible to restore public confidence in the security of the air transport system," said Michael Wascom, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the trade group for the major airlines.

One airline critic, Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., said he would not let the consumer issues drop.

"We are arguably a long way away from being able to correct those problems until we correct the fundamental security issues," said Sweeney, a member of the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee. "That doesn't mean we in Congress aren't going to pursue the further obligations of the airlines to provide a good service."

The Aviation Institute's Jenkins warned that a public already skittish about flying would be harder to coax back in the air should some preventable tragedy occur.

"The moment we forget about all those things, then something really disastrous is going to happen," he said. "In some ways, these issues could be more important now."

And Paul Hudson, director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, an advocacy group, argued that the terrorist attacks may make it easier to improve airline safety in other ways.

"The idea has been that we shouldn't make certain safety improvements because we can calculate with some degree of reliability what the cost of human life would be, and we can balance that against the cost of implementing them," Hudson said.

"No one would have imagined the cost of not having security at a very high level would be the loss of 6,000 lives."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.