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Have You Ever Heard Of Joe Sutter? You Should.

imagesOne reason long-distance air travel is today so inexpensive (and, hence, so commonplace), so comfortable, and so safe is the creativity and intelligence of Joe Sutter, a Boeing engineer who died a few days ago at the age of 95.  Mr. Sutter was the lead engineer whose team developed the Boeing 747.  (The nearby picture shows the 747 taking off on its very first flight.)  Here’s the write-up on Mr. Sutter that appears in the Wall Street Journal, which is quite interesting.

Two items from this write-up especially grabbed my attention.

The first is that, although Mr. Sutter was born and raised in Seattle, his parents immigrated to the United States from eastern Europe.  Because Mr. Sutter was born in March of 1921, we know that his parents managed to get to the U.S. before the first quota system for immigrants was imposed (with the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which was enacted in May of 1921).  Would America be as wealthy a place today if Mr. Sutter’s parents had been kept from immigrating here?  No.  This size of this counterfactual can’t be determined; it is surely, in itself – involving this one family – small.  Had the Sutters never moved to the U.S. where their son’s creativity, smarts, and drive would later complement other creative resources in a thoroughly bourgeois economy, aggregate income, wage, and trade data would be little changed.  But we’d still be poorer, in the same way that removing a thimble-full of water from an Olympic-size swimming pool necessarily reduces the water level of that pool despite the inability of empirical observers to detect the effect.

The second item to grab my attention is this paragraph:

Mr. Sutter served alongside Mr. [Neil] Armstrong and Sally Ride as part of a presidential commission to investigate the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger accident that killed seven astronauts. In his autobiography, Mr. Sutter recalled that Ms. Ride “took exception” to comments he had made about the safety culture of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which he found lacking in comparison with his world of commercial aviation.

Owners, managers, workers, and customers in the world of commercial aviation each have strong incentives to optimize safety.  In contrast, because NASA has no owners – no residual claimants – to reap disproportionate monetary rewards for better supplying safety or to suffer disproportionate monetary losses for failing to optimize safety, it is no surprise (to an economist) that commercial aviation is safer than any government-run aviation outfit.  Note that, despite the late and not-lamented Civil Aeronautics Board and the still-active Federal Aviation Administration, commercial aviation is safe not because of such government oversight but, rather, because private agents have strong incentives to optimize safety.  (It’s possible, by the way, that F.A.A. and other government oversight makes commercial aviation too safe – which, if true, might mean not only that customers pay too much money to fly but also that more people die and are injured while traveling than would be the case if commercial aviation were not made excessively safe by the state.  This latter possibility arises because, travel by more-dangerous automobiles being a substitute for travel by safer commercial aircraft, the higher the costs to passengers of flying, the greater the number of person-miles logged on highways and roads.)