USA Today, with help from trial lawyers, gets it exactly wrong

The headline is so over the top that it looks like a parody. The front page of the USA Today screams “Safety last: lies and coverups mask roots of small-plane carnage.” Words like lies and carnage are a dead giveaway that the article to follow will be a hatchet job, not serious journalism, and Thomas Frank’s three-part “investigation” doesn’t disappoint.

USA Today front page story

It doesn’t get much more sensationalist than this.

USA Today isn’t known for its high standards, but even for them “Safety last” is a disgrace. Over the course of thousands of breathless words, Frank manages to hit the trifecta of shoddy reporting: he cherry picks statistics, focuses on emotional stories over hard facts and relentlessly quotes from only one side of the argument. AOPA, GAMA and airframe manufacturers all talked to the author, but their contributions are nowhere to be found. It’s a classic case of a biased author who won’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.

The main argument is twofold: that small airplanes are crashing at an alarming rate, and that the NTSB has colluded with industry to hide evidence of major defects. Both are so wrong that the article contradicts itself numerous times.

Lying with statistics

The first point is supported by a grab bag of statistics, none offered in context or with any detail. Frank begins with a supposedly shocking statistic: “Nearly 45,000 people have been killed over the past five decades in private planes and helicopters.” That equates to three airplane crashes every day, which is certainly tragic, but it’s hardly “carnage.” For comparison, 14,800 car crashes happen every day, yet those don’t seem to merit a glossy, three-part story.

Even more damning, we are told, the general aviation accident record is worse than the airline accident record. This is lazy, and a classic straw man argument – no private pilot is flying a twin turbofan airplane with two professionally trained pilots. Indeed, comparing anything to the airlines looks unsafe right now. USA Today should be on a crusade to ban bathtubs and beds, since both kill more people every year than airline crashes.

The article also suggests the accident rate has surged lately, even though the author’s own chart shows a steady, nearly 40% decline in the accident rate over the past 25 years. There is no news to report here, other than the increasing safety–not danger–of personal aviation.

Coverup?

The more incendiary claim is that the NTSB is conspiring to hide the truth about defective parts from the public. Somehow the fact that airframe and engine manufacturers participate in accident investigations, instead of being celebrated as an example of industry working with regulators to improve safety, is cited as evidence that a conspiracy is in place.

In particular, Frank is outraged at the “grandfathering” policy of the FAA, where older airplanes are allowed to operate without some of the safety gear found in new airplanes. But this is no different than a classic car enthusiast driving his 1965 Mustang without a shoulder harness, airbags or anti-lock brakes. You could even argue that it’s worse than aviation, where the aircraft owner has to comply with Airworthiness Directives and pass an annual inspection. What the article seems to suggest is that old airplanes should be banned.

Finally, the NTSB is taken to task for not investigating every last airplane crash. This is again a sign of conspiracy to Frank, not the realistic result of limited government budgets. I personally would be happy to see every fatal accident investigated–while we’re at it, why not offer free beer and guaranteed retirement at age 50, too? It’s simply unreasonable.

Who really wrote it?

The average journalist doesn’t come up with such nonsense on his own—Frank clearly had help. Indeed, this article is nothing more than a plaintiff lawyer’s hit piece masquerading as news.

USA Today graph

Flying is getting more dangerous, we’re told, but the paper’s own graph disagrees.

The first clue is the story’s relentless focus on court rulings, as if judges and lawyers are the true arbiters of aviation safety, not the NTSB or the FAA. Here’s a typical example: “USA Today found 80 lawsuits involving 215 general-aviation deaths since 1994 that resulted in a manufacturer paying a settlement or damages of at least $1 million.” This says more about the rapacious lawyers involved in accident litigation than it does about the safety of airplanes. Numerous independent studies show that 80% of fatal general aviation crashes are caused by pilot error. But you can’t sue a dead pilot like you can a big company, so it’s no surprise that court cases go after the manufacturer.

It’s also odd that the specific examples Frank mentions—Cessna seat latches, helicopter fuel tanks and carburetors–are the causes celebres of many high profile aviation law firms. Danko-Meredith is one that has made a living out of suing airplane and helicopter OEMs for supposedly deadly design flaws. On its blog, the firm cheered the USA Today article–probably because they helped to write it!

The real smoking gun is the article’s one-sided reporting of the General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA) of 1994. This landmark law, passed in the wake of some truly outrageous lawsuits against Cessna and Piper, limits the original manufacturer’s liability and is credited with restarting piston airplane sales in the late 1990s. But the author paints GARA as a sneaky lobbying victory by big business, and an attempt to hide from defective parts. The American Association for Justice, the trial lawyers’ lobby group, couldn’t have written it better.

Curious Timing

One question worth asking is why this article was published now. There has been no noticeable uptick in accidents, no high profile crashes and no Congressional investigations. Why did a major newspaper devote so much space to such a non-issue?

The cynical answer is that print newspapers are getting clobbered by online outlets when it comes to reporting real news, so the old guard has resorted to such “investigations” to pump up readership. In the case of the USA Today, the target reader is a business traveler who frequently flies on the airlines. For this audience, what could be a more interesting read than a story about safe airlines and deadly “amateur pilots?” It may not be true, but it sure sells papers—just ask the tabloids how well this strategy works.

But there’s a more likely scenario, especially when you consider the overwhelming influence of trial lawyers on this article. The recent headlines about GM’s spate of car recalls (and the lawsuits that have inevitably followed) may have raised a glimmer of hope among the lawyers that they can find a chink in the armor of GARA. The vast majority of the general aviation fleet is older than 18 years, the law’s limit for liability, so lawsuits are harder to come by these days. What better way to kick off a fresh lobbying campaign than with a front-page story?

Serious questions—not asked

It’s easy to get defensive about an article like this, and many pilots’ first reaction may be to simply tune out. But we do ourselves a great disservice when we ignore the general public’s fears about small airplanes. Whether supported by facts (very rare) or by sensationalist journalism (more common), such sentiments are very real and are a major impediment to general aviation’s growth. Non-pilots don’t trust small airplanes, and it’s not enough to recite false statistics like “the most dangerous part of flying is the drive to the airport.”

We have to engage in the debate and present the facts. And the facts show that, like many things in life, the truth is more boring than the conspiracy theories. For every defective carburetor, there are five pilots who ran out of fuel, stalled on final or continued VFR into IMC. The evidence overwhelmingly shows that the onus is on us as pilots to make flying safer. Disturbing, but true.

That’s what makes this article so disappointing. There is a legitimate conversation to be had about flying safety—but USA Today is more interested in fear mongering than advancing safety. That’s the only thing I find outrageous.

 

19 Comments

  1. Duane says:

    John – bravo, you hit the nail right on the head. My first thought after this series ran is that the author is trolling for product liability lawyers, given its sole focus on purported product failures while ignoring the obvious – that most fatal private aviation accidents are the result of pilot errors or bad judgment. Everybody in aviation knows that … but that conflicts with the trial lawyers narrative.

    I don’t read USA Today, haven’t read one in years. I recall at least they used to allow for response opinion pieces, so AOPA ought to be standing in line to write the response. We can’t allow this propaganda to go unchallenged or the (small number of) USA Today readers will be influenced to find for these trial lawyers in future lawsuits.

  2. Keith Bumsted says:

    What’s worse, much worse, than the GA safety record related to faulty products? — the naked greed of plaintiffs lawyers and their desire to drain the bank accounts of aviation-related manufacturers and their insurance companies and enrich themselves after every accident regardless of the cause. The GARA is a hated feature of the law that deprives lawyers of their rightful share of the bounty!

    For another well written rebuttal to the nonsense in the Thomas Frank piece, see this link:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeff-schweitzer/unfit-for-publication-how_b_5509253.html

    • Duane says:

      Good take-down of the USA Today series in that post. Probably a lot more people will read that than the number that reads USA Today. Huffington reports over 43 million unique visitors and 112 million hits per month, while USA Today has a print circulation of only 1.67 million.

  3. John Smith says:

    Fear mongering, that’s all this is. Good safety records and reduction in deaths doesn’t sell papers.

  4. Bruce Ziegler says:

    Great article. I looked up the Danko-Meredith law firm blog you mentioned and it looked like they wrote the USA Today article. Thanks for pointing this out and I hope it gets wider distribution.

  5. Pete Bedell says:

    Tom Frank has a personal agenda to attack GA. Here’s another one he wrote in 2009 that was similarly sensationalized and completely one sided: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/travel/flights/2009-09-17-little-used-airports_N.htm
    I wrote a letter to USA Today about that one and assumed that his material would never again be published. Yet here we are again!

  6. Brent-S says:

    Not to be unexpected. Aviation horror stories sell, and they always have. In light of the ratings bump CNN got from the MH370 marathon, expect to see more of it across all media outlets, and concerning all sectors of aviation.

    People who enjoy flying will continue to fly, and people who are scared to fly, won’t. The media will reinforce the scaredy cats, and those who know better will disregard the stories for the sensationalism that they are.

  7. Steve Ksi says:

    Just a note on the first section. 45K people died in the last 5 decades. which equates to 3 plane crashes per day. We are talking about apples and oranges here. Was there 1 person per plane….I think not. About 34k people die on the roads every year in us that is 93 per day out of about 15,000 crashes/day.

  8. Stuart says:

    John, thanks for calling this out. The same day I read this, the USA Today article showed up as window dressing to a story about a tragic helicopter accident and lawsuit here in Arizona. Go Figure. It is really sad what the news media has become in this country.

  9. Donnie La Marca says:

    I felt sick when I read it…then angry. You nailed it John. Between trial attorneys and real estate corporations who only want the land under our airports, that article is a baseless assault on GA. And the problem us…John Q really doesn’t know the difference. Outrageous and saddening.

  10. Liad B. says:

    My sister is standing at the door while I am typing. We r going flying. it’s going to be her first time…

    This is how I fight back, and I will continue to do so one avgas gallon at a time, until Morons like this guy becomes irrelevant in the public eye.

    Blue sky’s my friends :-)

  11. Right on John Zimmerman – excellent essay. “Exactly wrong” is so correct.

  12. Jeff fox says:

    I agree with the above comments but I still think flying light planes in weather especially at night is difficult and relatively dangerous most of us don’t have the time and money for top notch equipment and training and currency

    • Keith Bumsted says:

      Yes, and when that is the case, it shouldn’t be done — period! When the inherent limitations of either the flying machine or the pilot are violated, the forces of nature will, often without apologies, remorse or appeal, enforce the boundaries of good practice, usually by extinguishing both the machine and it’s occupants.

      It’s just the way the world works unless you’re very, very lucky — gravity always wins!

  13. John says:

    Does anyone know the background of Tom Frank? Does he have any background in aviation? Is he a pilot or have any other real experience in the aviation industry? What degrees, if any, does he hold that is related to aviation, such as engineering or a hard science? I couldn’t find anything about him, except USA Today’s so-called bio, which had nothing except his journalism experience. Given the lack of deeper bio information, it is quite possible he is unqualified to write on aviation topics. If he had superb qualifications, wouldn’t they parade them? That is my hunch, but in truth, I just don’t know. If anyone knows, please post his background information. If indeed he is really unqualified, that would be a good thing to mention in subsequent public discussion.

    • Keith Bumsted says:

      There is a half decent Wikipedia article (search Thomas Frank) about him and his various attempts at contemporaneous journalism and political commentary. It is obvious from that biographical summary that he possesses no experience or credentials to write about aviation or much of anything else. He’s one of those people who talks a lot but doesn’t say much. In Texas, they’d say he’s “all hat and no cattle,” pretty much the kind of person who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing! Other than those character flaws, he seems like just another hackneyed writer trying to earn a living by spreading fear and anxiety wherever he can.

      • John says:

        As best as I can see, the Wikipedia article is not about the same Tom Frank. I didn’t see any reference to USA Today, and his photos look different. Again, any in depth bio information about Frank would be helpful. Anyone?

  14. Terry D. Welander says:

    The best way to take on the trial lawyers and their associates with this kind of outrageous fraud is by hiring their own, the trial lawyers, to take on these fraudsters responsible for such slanted half truths and out right disguised lies. Any court case against these fraudsters, at least in theory, should get them to think multiple times before publishing
    such fraud, half truths, and hidden lies. Or also called making absolutely certain facts
    are being published instead of fraud. The Lawyers have a flying association seems to me.
    Starting there would be a good start to stopping this fraud.

  15. Doyle Frost says:

    John, you hit the nail on the head. Ambulance chasers – trial lawyers, and their followers, are the bane of any aviator’s existence. Just watched an interesting program regarding SSDI and them. The disability courts, (their doctors and investigators,) are now the new realm for a lot of these companies that have a whole realm of nothing but ambulance chasers, looking to get rich off anyone they can, regardless of the consequences of their actions. Perhaps we need to have more “ETHICS IN LAW” courses taught in the law schools, and less of the “get rich quick” mentality.
    At the same time, we need to get more of the “feeling good” stories about GA publicized if we are to have any chance of getting support against these snakes in the grass, (not just the lawyers, but also the ignorant media.)

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