Last night, I watched an ABC News segment on the latest batch of canceled airline flights. Hundreds of American Airlines flights have been canceled, stranding tens of thousands of passengers, because of obscure FAA safety rules that required airplanes to be grounded so that something minor on each airplane could be adjusted to no more than 1 inch apart rather than the current 1.25 inches. When news anchor Charles Gibson asked whether the change made any difference to safety, the reporter covering the story simply responded that rules are rules. A former safety official had noted earlier that none of the grounded planes were in imminent danger of crashing.
Why are FAA bureaucrats requiring this, and causing thousands of people to wait for days on end in airports across the country? They are overreacting to earlier stories in the news media about FAA inspectors being too lax in enforcing safety regulations. (Never mind that airline fatalities are now at an all-time low in the U.S.). Congress then held a hearing where politicians bloviated before lots of news cameras about how terrible airline safety in America is.
What this illustrates is that mindless adherence to bureaucratic rules can be crippling. Unions have long recognized this. That’s why there’s something called a “work-to-rule strike,” where employees show up for work but then paralyze their employer by “applying to the letter rules that are normally set aside or interpreted less literally to increase efficiency,” all “in order to cause a slowdown.”
The thousands of grounded flights across the country result from the FAA’s version of the work-to-rule strike. But instead of the FAA deliberately paralyzing itself, it’s unintentionally paralyzing America’s airlines and throwing a monkey wrench into the gears of our air transport system. And that’s probably costing lives — people who travel by road to avoid canceled flights and flight delays have a higher mortality rate than airline passengers.