When the Valujet plane crashed into the Florida Everglades two months ago, the first reaction of government aviation officials was to reassure the public of air travel safety. Spokesperson after spokesperson made statements to the effect that flying Valujet, as with flying any U.S. airline, was safe.
Traditionally, the government has recognized no distinction between different airlines. There is, according to official policy, no such thing as one airline being safer than another. Either an airline meets government standards or it does not.
But air safety is not a yes or no proposition. Instead, various airlines follow various procedures that serve to make one airline more or less safe. Put another way, the safety of various airlines may be better measured on a continuum, running from less safe to safer, as opposed to a red light/green light contrast.
The Valujet crash has led government officials in Washington to start thinking about the wisdom of claiming that all airlines are equally safe. A few proposals have surfaced, most involving attempts to give airlines different rankings for safety. This is not an easy task. The number of accidents is generally too few to be statistically significant and accident records are a past matter, not necessarily indicative of what newly instituted changes might produce.
Despite the emotional appeal of demanding higher safety standards after a crisis, such as the Valujet crash or the TWA crash or even the recent outbreak of cyclospora, the fact is that safety costs money. In aviation, for example, planes could possibly be redesigned so that a bomb in the luggage department is less likely to cause a terrible tragedy. Unfortunately, the cost of the new plane might be so high that many could no longer afford to fly. Food, too, could be inspected with more rigor at every level of distribution with, of course, concomitant increases in cost.
In the past, our determination as a society has been to let the government set a standard and then to put a sharp edge on it; have the government lie to everyone and say that aviation, nuclear power plants, food — pick your controversy— is perfectly safe.
Government, though, is losing its credibility. As the population has become more educated, a growing movement has arisen for individuals to make independent decisions about safety. The whole organic foods movement, for example, has taken off despite governmental insistence that conventionally grown foods are absolutely safe. Yet, many people do not believe. People who pay more for organic produce often do so in order to get what they perceive as healthier food.
So what is a government to do? To start out, the government has to tell the truth, even if the truth is complicated and scary. The government has to say things like this: “Our regulations, if followed properly, provide for a minimum threshold of public safety. The regulations, though, do not eliminate the responsibilities of companies to ensure the safety of their own products, nor of individuals to consider the safety of the products and services they purchase and/or consume.”
It is difficult for most people to really think through these issues because we, as a civilization, have grown used to seeing the world through certain lenses. Either airline are permitted to run on a laissez-faire basis, with the risk of life and limb heavily influenced by economic factors, or government establishes tight regulations based on political concerns to keep everyone in line.
As we near the 21st century and, with the help of technology and wise policy, move to a world in which the humblest man will have comprehensive information at his disposal — more than the most powerful potentates of the past could dream of possessing — we have to devise new ways of thinking.
First, we have to set public policy in such a manner that private enterprise regulates itself. Want a safer air transportation industry? Require that every airline carry an insurance policy from a top-rated carrier to pay very high amounts per passenger in the event of a fatality. Watch how quickly the insurance companies whip airlines into shape.
Second, we have to respect the fact that people make trade-offs. A grandmother in Atlanta might fly on an airplane she knows is less safe but also less expensive so that she can visit her grandchildren more often.
Third, look to private organizations such as Underwriter’s Laboratory, Consumer’s Reports, and even Good Housekeeping, with its Seal of Approval, which has long provided consumers with the guidance to purchasing. In the future, perhaps nobody will buy anything without touching a handheld web browser to get safety information.
Fourth, manufacturers will have to seize control of their products and, conversely, retailers will only want to deal with certain classes of manufacturers. Many fresh-cut manufacturers, for example, have expressed concerns that inadequate refrigeration at retail and inadequate cold-chain procedures at wholesale and retail could result in food safety problems. Yet, how many have said they won’t sell to retailers who don’t agree to adopt approved cold-chain procedures.
Even today, it is not clear that in the event of a food-safety problem, consumers would accept as a legitimate excuse from suppliers that “it was the retailer’s fault.” Part of protecting a product is dealing only with retailers who are willing to handle and display a product properly.
Fifth, branding will take on new importance. As long as the government was giving an outright assurance of safety, brands competed on issues like flavor and service. If instead, the government accepts that different companies use procedures which provide different levels of safety, then brands will start being a proxy for different levels of safety.
Volvo, for example, has built a reputation for safety in automobiles, which it widely touts. Building such a cachet also might be done through third-party endorsements: All World Wide Widget plants might be certified Four Diamonds by the Consumers Food Alliance, for example.
However it is done, as consumers feel they should take better care of themselves, a strong brand may become a powerful asset indeed.