“Coffee, tea, or milk?”
“We don’t have time for coffee, tea, or milk. We’re doomed.”
“Well, then, how about a martini?”
If memory serves, the cause of comedian Shelley Berman’s alarm was the wing outside his window—“a sheet of flame,” as he so desperately reminded the blasé stewardess. His famous comedy routine of the Fifties succinctly captured everyone’s implicit fears about airplanes and the pilots who flew them. (When today’s loudspeaker comes on, a generation of air travelers still remembers Berman’s pilot drawling, “Good aftahnoon, ladies and gennlemen. We’ll be fly in’ at an altitude of… uuuhhh… aww, I dunno… twenny thousand feet, thirty thousand feet…”)
Aircraft and pilots, however, have at least been subject to supervision by the Federal Aeronautics Administration since the Thirties, a system that ensures Berman’s fears will usually (not always, but usually) remain on the funny side of comedy. Airline mechanics, too, have long been certificated by the FAA. For most of the history of American commercial aviation, in fact, only one major factor in air safety escaped such scrutiny: the airports themselves. Not until 1973 were airports required to meet basic federal safety standards; until then, for all practical purposes, there just wasn’t any federal airport safety law.
Nor were the states falling all over themselves to do the job. Airplanes have been carrying passengers around Texas skies for a good half-century, but not until 1966 did the Legislature bestir itself to create the Texas Aeronautics Commission—and even then did not give the TAC any jurisdiction to enforce airport safety. Everything was left up to the hundreds of petty fiefdoms that comprise America’s private and municipal airport system. Some were conscientious, some weren’t; some were rich enough to be conscientious, some weren’t. Either way, the public flew into their airports.
One of the ablest airport managers, Austin’s Roy Bayless (president-elect of the American Association of Airport Executives, the national airport managers’ association), continues to doubt federal airport certification was needed. “We believe in the home rule concept,” he said. “We think we know what is needed better than the people at the federal level do. And the proof of the pudding is all around you: look at the New Federalism, where the federal government is trying to get out of all sorts of things.”
For decades airport managers and airline companies lobbied against federal airport certification bills that ALPA, the Air Line Pilots’ Association, supported. Not until the Nixon presidency was anything done. In the spare moments; between his dark deeds, Richard Nixon found time to take a personal interest in airport safety, and the Airport and Airways Development Act of 1970 was the result.
One special proviso, however, helped as much as anything Nixon did. The airline companies had always opposed federal airport safety standards because they knew the airports might finance the expensive changes by raising their landing fees. The 1970 act imposed an eight per cent tax on airplane tickets, put the money in an Airport Trust Fund, and arranged to pay for many of the newly required improvements with it. Once the airlines discovered that the public would foot the bill for airport safety, they relaxed.
Although the certification standards are riddled with enough compromises to make plain they are nothing more than minimums, they have forced reluctant airports to shape up or lose their air-carrier service altogether. A 1971 ALPA study of emergency crash, fire, and rescue equipment found that 203 of the 488 U.S. airports had inadequate emergency resources—some, like Laredo, had no equipment at all. Since the law went into effect in 1973 the FAA has required all airports to have safety equipment on the premises, and the equipment must be capable of reaching the