When Accountants Design Aircraft

Milton Friedman probably never wrote about airline safety. But it’s a good bet that he’d conceive of it like so: Keep the dead hand of the state off of the genius of technological innovation and the private commercial operation of air transport. If an aircraft manufacturer or airline proves negligent and enough bodies pile up, the market will punish those companies. After all, the primary duty of the corporation is to its shareholders, which should, through the magic of emergent order and free markets, ensure the safety of the flying public.

Fortunately, that’s not how advanced societies function.

The dreaded “dead hand” is the reason why, despite the vigorous protestations of the chemical and petroleum industries, our children are not poisoned with atmospheric lead, and it’s why, despite the screams of the apparel industry, you don’t have to worry about your granddaughter’s jammies catching fire.

And it’s also one of the many reasons why, until three years ago, catastrophic airliner crashes became ever rarer.

Peter Robison narrates in Flying Blind how, on October 28, 2018, a Lion Air Boeing 737 Max took off from Bali for Jakarta, and almost immediately its pilots had trouble maintaining the jet’s pitch – nose up versus nose down – axis. Screams ricocheted through the cabin as the plane careened up and down. An off-duty senior pilot came to the cockpit and noticed something that the captain and first officer, fighting their control yokes, had missed: The trim wheel on the console between them, an anachronism more likely to be found in an old Cessna than a modern airliner, was turning on its own. This observation drove him to consult the checklist for the stabilizer – the small aft wing that controls pitch – which told him to shut off its motor.