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The Plane Truth

Airline Crashes, the Media, and Transportation Policy

Subject Aircraft accidents.


Media coverage of transportation issues focuses primarily on the causes and consequences of airline crashes. For example, during the week of July 14, 1996 there were 842 motor vehicle fatalities, none of which were covered by the national media. The same week, 212 passengers and 18 crew members died when Trans World Airlines Flight 800 exploded just after takeoff. The disaster was the years top story, according to the Associated Press, and it led to one of the longest crash investigations in aviation history.According to Roger Cobb and David Primo, air safety policy is disjointed and chaotic, and disproportionate media coverage of airline disasters is a major contributing factor. In the era of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, coverage of airline crashes is immediate and widespread, as is speculation regarding the cause. Politicians with affected constituencies often propose legislation or initiate regulatory rulemaking in response to a particular incident, but meaningful change often does not occur.Political pressure to determine the causes of crashes, along with the conflicting missions of the federal agencies charged with investigating them, deflects attention from areas of aviation safety unrelated to a specific accident. In The Plane Truth, Cobb and Primo examine the impact of high-visibility plane crashes on airline policy.The authors describe the typical responses of various playerselected officials, investigative agencies, airlines, and the media. Looking at all airline crashes in the 1990s, they examine how particular features of an accident correspond to the level of media attention it receives, as well as how airline disasters affect public policy. Three accidents are examined in detail: ValuJet Flight 592 (May 1996), TWA Flight 800 (July 1996), and USAir Flight 427 (September 1994).Concerned that aviation security is eclipsing aviation safety in the wake of September 11, they encourage federal agencies to strike a better balance between the two.Finally, in order to address the Federal Aviation Administrations poor track record in balancing airline safety regulation with its other duties, they recommend the creation of a new federal agency that is responsible for aviation safety.

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