Deciding whether either the FAA or the NFPA standard is desirable depends on the choice one makes between the economic and political views of aviation safety. In economic terms, it is unlikely that either standard produces benefits in excess of costs. Aviation safety experts in both sectors confirm that almost no recent proposals for improved aviation safety can be justified on economic grounds. This does not render these standards unpopular, however. The political culture of aviation safety is characterized by an extreme "no-risk" perspective that apparently cuts across public and private boundaries. Congressman Norman Mineta (D-Calif.) recently allowed that "no rational risk analysis or cost-benefit analysis would conclude that the next increment of safety improvements needed in this country is in aviation." He went on to argue for precisely such expenditures. A similar view prevails at NFPA. Apparently, all that matters in either sector is whether new regulations might make the skies safer—how much safer and at what cost are of little interest.
"Safe enough," notes an NTSB official, sounding a popular chord, "means safer every year." In those terms, both the FAA and NFPA standards are probably desirable. That is, they would contribute, however minimally, to improvements in aviation safety. But even that conclusion is unsure, particularly for the FAA standard. One aviation safety expert considers the FAA's response to the Air Canada fire purely "cosmetic." While virtually everyone connected with the smoke detector business had serious doubts about putting household detectors in airplane lavatories, the FAA was unconcerned. A rulemaking staff member demurred that the UL standard for household detectors "is a very impressive document," implying that it provides sufficient requirements for aviation use. UL disagreed, detailing in a letter to the FAA's public docket numerous reasons why household detectors are inappropriate
for aviation use. The height of FAA hubris is summed up in a staff member's conclusion that, although there might be operational difficulties, "we say in the rule that [the airlines] are expected to keep [the smoke detectors] working."
A lack of technical understanding, similar to that expressed by OSHA in the grain elevator proceedings, was evident in how the FAA dealt with fire extinguishers. The rulemaking staff did not appreciate the possible significance of flexible nozzles. Nor did they apparently understand the need for special training in the use of Halon extinguishers. These points were called to the FAA's attention, however, and the failure of the agency to respond demonstrates the extent to which FAA rulemaking is driven by political pressures. After the Air Canada fire, the FAA was painfully aware that Congress wanted the agency to enact a rule, any rule. And that is precisely what the FAA did—placate an impatient Congress with a quick, but half-baked, safety standard.
In sum, the FAA displayed a surprising range of regulatory behavior over time. The agency relied on quiet advice for years, deferring largely to private decisions. That tactic is more effective than it is often portrayed. The airframe manufacturers probably do more to advance aviation safety than the FAA does. But the FAA is quick to regulate when it is subject to strong congressional pressure, usually triggered by the NTSB recommendations that follow every calamity. The FAA's response to the Air Canada fire demonstrates that public standards-setting need not get bogged down in procedural requirements. This encouraging note is tempered, however, by the realization that important technical issues were overlooked in the rush to regulate.
The private sector, on the other hand, was slower and more sensitive to technical issues. Expressing the kind of technical knowledge also present in the grain elevator proceedings, the NFPA committee recognized the benefits of flexible nozzles and proper training. Showing the same regulatory philosophy present in the grain elevator proceedings, the committee declined to adopt specific requirements in areas deemed "managerial." The committee made "non-binding" recommendations instead. But the NFPA standard is actually more demanding than the FAA's in its requirements for fire extinguishers. That is probably because professional fire safety engineers played a central role in the development of NFPA 408. These engineers do not profess to balance costs and benefits in the pursuit of fire safety. Rather, there is a powerful professional tendency, even in the private sector, to "favor fire protection for the sake of fire protection."
The NFPA standard does not address smoke detectors; they are not within the formal jurisdiction of the Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting Committee. While this lapse is not necessarily bad, it suggests a possible shortcoming of private standards-setting. The specialization of committees threatens to overlook broader regulatory issues and ignore some of the connections between standards. To address these problems, there is a proposal within NFPA to create a "Cabin Fire Protection" committee. An active participant in NFPA 408 calls the proposal controversial and political. "It would require much broader expertise than anyone has. But everyone would want to be on that committee."
The tangled connection between so-called installation standards (such as NFPA 408) and product standards (such as UL's standards for fire extinguishers) also affected the quality of NFPA 408. The standard relies on UL's generic standards for fire extinguishers. But the UL standard is not geared to the aviation environment. Technological changes that would be appropriate to aviation standards—such as flexible nozzles, longer discharge time, or a Class A rating for five-pound extinguishers—are therefore not incorporated into NFPA 408. Unfortunately, the cause and possible cure of this disjuncture between installation standards and product standards is not clear from this case alone. This chicken-and-egg problem confounds various cases of overlapping private regulation.
There was also a marked change in private behavior over time, but for reasons unrelated to the Air Canada fire. NFPA 408 languished in the 1970s, when, as an NFPA officer quaintly explains, there was "an attendance problem." The Standards Council intervened in 1980, and the standard was revitalized shortly before the Air Canada fire in 1983. The changing fortunes of NFPA 408 reflect the importance of the demand for private standards. Standards are demanded for a host of reasons: for example, to provide technical information, to lend credibility, and to minimize exposure to liability. The first two of these influences waned as airframe manufacturers seized the initiative for most safety issues. These manufacturers obviously have the technical capability, and they apparently have attained the political credibility to engage effectively in self-regulation. (Liability law does not appear to be an important influence in aviation standards, since the law assesses liability practically without regard to fault.) As the demand for NFPA 408 waned, so did attendance at the Rescue and Firefighting Committee. Some foreign air carriers still sought regulatory information, but the domestic demand was minimal. The correspondingly low revenue gen-
erated by this standard probably helps explain NFPA's acquiescence in this lapse. The evolution of NFPA 408 suggests that minimal demand can beget minimal standards. Attempting to reverse this trend, the NFPA Standards Council pushed its aviation committees to update their standards in 1980. This restored the standard to the substantive status it had enjoyed before falling into disuse. But the demand is artificial. There is no evidence that air carriers or airframe manufacturers actually use this standard. It seems likely, therefore, that it will languish again, NFPA's gallant efforts to sell more standards notwithstanding.