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By Steve Kelman

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How good government made airline seats safer

Asiana air crash

The wreckage of an Asiana Air jetliner rests on the ground where it crashed at the San Francisco airport. (AP photo)

There have been many comments about the mercifully modest – though of course still very sad – number of casualties in the crash landing of Asiana flight 214 in San Francisco over the weekend. A report on the NBC Nightly News Sunday evening noted that this was the latest in a series of crash landings over the past few years where the death toll was noticeably lower than used to be common.

There was a report on CNN that I have not seen taken up anywhere else regarding the development of secure airplane seats that hold up to crash shock better. The design reduces the chance that the seats will fly off their moorings, taking the passengers with them, and hitting walls, ceilings and each other at high force. There was also a story in the Huffington Post about improvements in airplane design that have made planes safer.

These new seat safety requirements apparently were mandated by the federal government sometime in the 1980s, based on investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) of causes of death in earlier plane accidents. They found that seats that became unhinged during crashes were a significant cause of deaths in crash landings, and a regulation was then developed to address this problem. We saw the results in the aftermath of the San Francisco tragedy.

People often talk these days about "evidence-based government." This is a phrase that was not really around when the NTSB did this work, but they were practicing the principle without using the word. The idea is to use information to pinpoint problems, try a possible solution and get feedback to see if it reduces or eliminates the problem. (Interestingly, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, also a transportation safety unit in the Department of Transportation, is another pioneer in using accident data to pinpoint problems with roads, cars or drivers that might be addressed by appropriate government action.) It is similar to the idea being discussed today of using agency performance metrics to improve organizational performance.

I bring up this ripped-from-the-headlines example for two reasons. One is to make a pitch for the virtues of evidence-based government. While hardly a cure-all, it sure beats the alternatives. The second is communicated by the title of this post. All too often, when government screws up (either allegedly or in reality), the intuitive reaction of the media, and of a large number of citizens, is to say something like: "government, there you go again." (Notice the TV news features commonly ironically labeled something like "Your Tax Dollars at Work.")

When government does something right, it is seldom noted that the entity that has helped out is the government. Indeed, sometimes people do not even associate the positive things with being part of government at all – a lot of people, I think, somehow regard the military or even the police or fire departments as not being part of "the government." So let's remember that "the government" helped save lives in San Francisco over the weekend.

Posted on Jul 08, 2013 at 10:19 AM

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Reader comments

Thu, Jul 11, 2013

Steve, In the same vein of this article do you have any knowledge of or commentary on the Federal Performance Improvement Council?

Thu, Jul 11, 2013 Al

Do airline seats meet the federal requirement, or exceed them? If they exceed, what would explain that? Or, do you think the investigation is useful without the regulation? Another question: did the pilot obtain a government certification to perform his work? If a pilot error caused the crash, didn't the Government have a hand in the crash? This is the burden of power . . .

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