Neoliberalism, Regulation, and Volcanic Ash

I hope no planes fall from the sky.  And yet I think:

The pressure to get those planes in the air is unsafe; it is motivated by business interests and the giant neoliberal push over the last 20 years means that there is no one in a position to stand up for consumer safety in a meaningful way (meaning they have the power/authority to intervene).

Here’s why I am freaked out:

1. My good friend and fellow blogger, Bob Nelson, is in Germany trying to get home.   I need him if I ever want to finish my next book. Plus I love his kids . . . but let’s not go too far down this road.

2. Every business/airline that sends test flights into the ash reports no damage but every military or government test shows some engine damage.  Read all about it here.

3. The plane manufacturers recommendation for acceptable particulate level for jets flying through is ZERO (the flight safety foundation concurs (opens as PDF) and so does the USGS (opens as PDF) and the airline industry group EIN.

4. We actually have had some planes unavoidably fly through DIFFUSE ash clouds in the not too distant past. This ash cloud is not diffuse.  Here is what happens.

So basically, the hot engines suck in ash which is made of sand and glass. It melts and then clogs the tiny cooling holes. Engines overheat, stop working, and the plane plummets to the earth. BUT if the pilot reduces throttle (the opposite recommendation from normal power loss) until the plane drops oh say 10,000 feet and then he guns the engines, the cold fresh air MIGHT break the glass and the plane could keep flying.

So why is this appropriate for a Legal Studies blog?   Well, maybe it isn’t but I had to get this off my chest.   But I think it is because here you have the CLASSIC model of business in trouble (through no fault of their own — I mean really, what is a more convincing “act of God” than a volcano?).  You have regulators with less power as the EU has consolidated it has definitely taken on a more “free market” mentality to encourage business; regulators and regulations have less bite than they used to (though more than in the US) and you have pretty much every piece of empirical data I can find which says this is a no-brainer — you don’t fly through ash clouds if you can help it.

I don’t think business people making these decisions are evil (let me be clear).  I think they are not the proper neutral party to make the safety determination because they are facing a boat load of pressure from the people that the law has set them up to be responsible to (shareholders primarily though also customers).

So I am just sayin’ – here we are in a situation where you really want some top scientists, pilots, etc etc making the safest decision for everyone but that system is not in place because we have deferred regulation to business (here and in Europe). And the regulatory authorities that do exist and have called for these cancellations can resist for about 5 days before business goes on.  And I hope it is safe, but I am skeptical.


3 Responses to Neoliberalism, Regulation, and Volcanic Ash

  1. jeffaregularworkinglawyer says:

    You’re back! I hope Bob makes it home safely and soon.

    Airlines, like other businesses, make thousands of safety decisions every day. Many of these decisions take place within regulatory guidelines, and we depend on the market (if enough planes of airline A crash, fliers may prefer airline B) and the threat of litigation (i.e., post facto regulation)to give businesses further incentives to avoid excessive risks for short term gain. The system works pretty well — no one really thinks that air travel is unduly dangerous, do they? — but can break down in situations like this one, where the risk is so unusual that it is not the subject of regulation, and the chance of repetition seems very low. If there is a real economist out there, I’d love to hear his or her thoughts.

  2. laurabethnielsen says:

    I totally agree Jeff — in most situations, business is probably well equipped given all the forces you describe, to make this determination. Here we are in potential catastrophe-land (economically or worse, in lives lost) and we need something better in place. In addition to economists, there is a branch of sociology that deals with decision-making when catastrophic failure is a potential outcome. We need some of them.

    Oh and by the way, videos depicting animal cruelty are now protected by the first amendment. sigh.

  3. jeffaregularworkinglawyer says:

    Another thought about safety and regulation — it seems to me that we are pretty happy with safety regulation in the consumer sphere. Planes crash, people get sick from food borne illnesses, but we generally feel that these things happen at acceptable levels of frequency. We are less comfortable with the effectiveness of worker safety regulation, it seems to me. Do you agree? If so, why is regulation in one area more successful than the other? The obvious answer is political — there is a wide constituency for effective regulation of products used by the general public, but a narrow constituency for, say, coal miner safety. But there is a market component, too. Workers may lack the freedom to chose alternatives to unsafe employment that consumers have with respect to unsafe products.

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