But assuming such a high level of safety exists, why are the airlines so shy about it? You rarely hear carriers talking about safety. Why not use it to their advantage?

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As a rule, airlines in America do not use safety as a marketing tool. All employ the word in a vague and general fashion, but seldom with regard to specific programs or innovations. To do so would be, on one hand, statistically manipulative, and on the other hand, a potential form of market suicide, undercutting the presumption of air safety in general. Not to mention the humiliation a given carrier would endure should a disaster transpire. For airline A to sell itself as safer than everyone else, there needs to be a presumption of danger aboard its competitors. This would entail some dubious statistical maneuvering. Since the terror attacks of 2001, American Airlines has had one fatal accident; the other network carriers none. For United or Delta to brag of having a better record than American would be, even if mathematically accurate, a little underhanded.

Few of us require a primer on the ruthlessness of corporate advertising, but in this case there’s a risk factor that compels the airlines into a collective quiet. With casualties so rare, the statistical swing from a “safe” airline to a “dangerous” one hinges on select few events drawn from hundreds of thousands of departures. Reputations can be lost through a single act of folly or stroke of lousy luck. Quite understandably, airlines have no desire to put their competitive eggs in such a precarious basket.

Furthermore, the moment any airline dares put safety into the mix, the issue loses its statistical context and becomes a play on passenger emotions. All airlines will suffer if, in effect, passengers are encouraged to openly contemplate their mortality while surfing Travelocity. Flying is safe, and a majority of people, including most fearful flyers, assent to this reality with little or no fuss. That’s good enough for the airlines.

Having said all that, there are ways to play the game slyly. An airline is never faulted for boasting that its crews receive the best training possible; the preflight demo rambles imperatively of seat belts and oxygen masks; the captain reminds you that nothing is more important than the well-being of everybody on board. But these are not mass-market pitches. Protocol permits any airline to call itself safe. Just not safer.

Just because an airline doesn’t showboat its safety initiatives doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Cynics will be eager to cite a seeming trail of greed and negligence: airlines found culpable for certain crashes, fines for maintenance violations, and so on. But I hasten to remind you how much a carrier stands to lose should one of its planes go down. Liability can run into the billions, and a single disaster can destroy an airline outright. Hard as it might be for some of you to accept, to suggest the industry, along with its federal overseers, are playing fast and loose with the lives of the traveling public is a terrible distortion.

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