In the shadow of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 investigation, there have been calls from industry experts and insiders to make the industry more transparent, specifically making more information about the plane, its cargo and its history available. But what do passengers really have a right, versus a need, to know?
Last night while browsing Twitter, I came upon a tweet posted by CNN's Anderson Cooper, who was quoting Aviation Attorney and former U.S. DOT Inspector General Mary Schiavo.
— Anderson Cooper 360° (@AC360) March 25, 2014
I tweeted a reply, asking what info they were referring to.
— Paul Thompson (@FlyingPhotog) March 25, 2014
Mary Schiavo replied:
— MarySchiavo (@MarySchiavo) March 25, 2014
Mary's reply brought an interesting thought to mind — on a daily basis, outside the highly unlikely and rare situation such as the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, why would a passenger want or need access to such information?
When passengers book flights, most if not all airlines list the kind of plane you're scheduled to fly on. Alas, the aircraft type is always subject to change, if you're flying a carrier with a diverse fleet. A traveler can easily research anything about the history and manufacturing of the Boeing 777, for example. Aircraft manufacturers have loads of technical specs publicly available on their websites — size, passenger capacity, range, etc. Why would it benefit airline to spend the time and money to publish this information as well?
Even the day of your flight, you can find more information about the plane you're flying on by just walking to the window. At most airport gates, you'll have a good view of your plane once it's parked. Look for the registration number by the tail. In the U.S. that number starts with 'N.' Now Google it. The results will show photos of the plane, when it was made and what engines it has. That plane with a shiny new paint job may have been built in the 1980s, but that doesn't make it less safe to fly.
In regard to the need for transparent maintenance records and cargo manifests, those are the first things an airline turns over to the NTSB after an incident. But let's just say those things were always available to the public at any time. If the incident happens in another country, we can't necessarily enforce that mandate, as each country operates under its own unique rules.
Airlines don't have a reason to publicly produce a plane's maintenance records outside of a major incident. Naysayers will say it allows airlines to be too secretive, but airlines aren't compelled to falsify records either, as that can result in a bunch of bad publicity, a major fine and potential loss of air carrier certificate. Cargo manifests are not shared for competitive reasons. If airlines know who is carrying cargo for whom, they'll be likely to try and poach business from their competitor. In addition, cargo customers don't necessarily want competitors to have access to where and when their products are being shipped.
The rights and needs of this situation are vastly different. If a plane crashes, does the public have a right to know how much training the pilots had? Yes. Should the airline disclose the maintenance records along with what kind of cargo was on board and how much there was? Absolutely. But there's just no need to have this information out there daily for the tens of thousands of flights that come and go uneventfully.
Top image: Passengers wait to check in for a flight. / Getty Images