The cost of flying safely

Despite the attention given to the missing Malaysian jetliner, when you get on an airline in the United States, you’re getting on one of the safest forms of transportation known to the civilized world.

The U.S. has some of the most stringent safety requirements of any country and it shows in the results. If any international airline wants to fly to the United States, they have to adhere to FAA regulations.

Is it worth it?

BusinessWeek this week breaks down the cost of that safety, noting “smoke detectors in airplane lavatories cost $30,000 per life-year saved and emergency signs $54,400 per life-year,” for example. And that’s based on a 20-year-old study.

In doing so, it questions whether it’s “worth it” to export U.S. air safety regulations to other countries:

The divide between the priorities of the developed and developing worlds is not limited to safety standards, of course. By virtue of our overall high standard of living, rich countries have moved on from basic needs (like vaccinations) to what some might consider luxuries. Developed nations can afford to spend thousands or millions of dollars to avoid a single death—even if it’s of a panda rather than a human. Sadly, human people regularly die from far cheaper problems in poorer parts of the world.

When it comes to regulation primarily designed to protect domestic consumers, it may be too much to ask the U.S. government to strongly consider the impact of its decisions on consumers in the rest of the world, but it would be helpful. And it’s worth repeating that sometimes the impact is likely to be positive. Even in the case of airline safety regulations, if they make the kind of publicity Malaysia has suffered over the last fortnight a little less likely, even some low-income governments might consider them worth the price.