Leading Article: Airlines should be monitored by a global watchdog

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The Independent Culture
ON TUESDAY, six people living near an airport in Guatemala City died when a Cuban DC-10 jet skidded off the runway and crashed into their neighbourhood. On Wednesday, the residents of Great Hallingbury in Essex narrowly avoided a similar fate when a Korean Air Boeing 747 cargo plane came down in flames less than a mile from their village. Although it is too early to apportion blame, it is hard to avoid noting that neither Cubana de Aviacion nor Korean Air Lines have the best of safety records. In April this year another KAL cargo flight fell into a construction site in Shanghai shortly after take off killing nine people and injuring another 30. And it is true that there has been a disturbing sequence of similar mishaps involving KAL over the past few years.

It is no secret that the safety record of air carriers varies greatly, but little is done to publicise these figures. The Federal Aviation Administration in the United States does make such data available, although, not surprisingly, the Civil Aviation Authority in Britain does not. It would be a great boon to air travellers if airlines were to compete on their safety records: who would not mind paying a premium to have a better chance of arriving at their destination?

But the primary responsibility for air safety must lie with national governments, for no one else will look out for the interests of those living under the flight paths of these potential flying bombs.

Unfortunately, as with much else in our globalised lives, national regulation is insufficient for the task. As things stand, South Korea is responsible for assessing the safety of its air carriers, as is Cuba for its. Yes, Britain can ban an airline that fails checks when in this country. Earlier this year, for example, the CAA suspended Malaysia Airlines from using UK airspace after it flew an aircraft over London with too little fuel in its tanks. But national air authorities cannot demand to inspect and evaluate airlines in another country.

What is needed is a global authority to issue, and withdraw, air worthiness certificates for airlines that are operating internationally. Its finance could be drawn from the airlines themselves and its staffing could be of a quality that few countries can afford to maintain on their own. In addition, its objectivity could be assured, as its decisions would be independent of the interests of any particular government.

National governments are invariable reluctant to surrender their powers to foreign regulation (see the row between France and Britain over beef), but where they cannot assure the safety of their citizens on their own they can best work with others to solve intrinsically international problems for the good of all.