So last Sunday, an Airbus 310 flying from Cuba to Quebec lost the entire control surface of its rudder (picture). According to BitsBlog (via Instapundit), even though the plane was in US airspace at the time, the pilot elected to return to Cuba rather than declare an in-flight emergency. He did so after conferring with the plane’s owner, Air Transat.
This is the third incident involving a A300-series’s rudder. One of the incidents resulted in the crash of American Airlines flight 587 in November of 2001, which resulted in the deaths of all 265 lives aboard. This raises legitimate questions about the safety of the A300 airframe’s revolutionary use of composite materials. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like Airbus or any competent authority is taking the matter seriously. I think they are not tackling the problem because of matters of national prestige.
The Air Transat decision not to declare an emergency and land in the US probably had more to do with their fear of the bad press that would result if the plane landed in media saturated American instead of media controlled Cuba (the company has a history of maintenance problems) but as a Francophone owned airline, and a heavy user of A300s, the desire to protect the reputation of the A300 can’t be ruled out. Both Airbus and European regulators also have an intense interest in sweeping problems under the rug.
The main problem here is that Airbus isn’t just a manufacturer of aircraft. Rather, it is a political creation of the European Union and one which Europeans are very proud of. Failure at Airbus doesn’t just cost investors money but tarnishes the political class and cultural self-esteem of Europe. When Airbus unveiled its new mega-plane, the A380, the ceremony was attended by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac. They are not going to look favorably on the idea that the A300 series may have a design flaw.
This represents one of the systemic problems with State intervention in economic matters. Once the political class bets its own reputation on the success of an enterprise, the State ceases to be an honest regulator of that enterprise. In effect, the State becomes an investor potentially more concerned about the appearance of success than with safety or economic efficiency. We saw this happen in the post-WWII era with nationalized industries in Europe and with Cold War era defense contractors in the US.
As even the most ardent free-market advocates from Adam Smith onward have recognized, the profit seeking behavior of private companies only produces a greater public good in the aggregate. Over time and the breadth of the entire economy, the positive effects of profit seeking outweigh the negative effects, but the negative effects do occur and sometimes they cost lives. The modern State has carved out a role of trying to ameliorate the negative consequences of the free market. (Whether it has been successful or efficient in doing so is another argument.) However, in order to fulfill this role, the State cannot have an interest in the actual success or failure of an enterprise.
Not only does State investment, financial or otherwise, disrupt the State’s regulatory role, it also shields the enterprise from the free-market influences that correct negative behaviors. Freed of all constraints, the enterprise becomes reckless, pursuing its self-interest with no regard for the possible negative consequences. The general populace ends up with the worst aspects of socialism combined with the worst aspects of the free market.
If the A300 does have a rudder problem, it may be very difficult and expensive to fix due to the extensive use of composite material in the airframe’s construction. Airbus could be looking at a very expensive and very public retrofit program. The question is: Will the European political system be able to accept the humiliation of having to do so before more people die?