I happened to be watching television that afternoon, and couldn't remove myself from the endless, mesmerizing footage of a choppy square of ocean off Point Magu. "That is a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter you are watching live, hovering over the area," newscasters said, for lack of any other information, hour after hour, on every channel on the dial. "All we've seen float to the top so far are a few pieces of debris. At least one large piece of fuselage, at least one yellow aircraft floatable item."
During the next 11 months the terrifying upside-down image of the Acapulco-San Francisco flight became an icon for the inadequacy of U.S. airline regulation. And the week George W. Bush began putting together his presidential Cabinet, the National Transportation Safety Board held hearings to determine the cause of the crash. Testimony depicted an understaffed, low-morale regulatory agency that failed to act on serious safety lapses by Alaska going back to the early 1990s.
"The extent of government failure, that was stunning to me. And I'm an old warrior in that arena," said Mary Schiavo, inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, when I spoke with her a few days after she attended the Alaska 261 hearings. Like no time in the history of aviation, Schiavo told me, the government must drastically improve the way it regulates the air-travel industry.
But, as anyone who's following national politics right now knows, increased safety regulation is not the sort of initiative likely to see daylight during the George W. Bush years.
Whether in the areas of health, safety, or the environment, industry groups and lobbyists are now savoring the idea that they will have a direct hand in hiring, then directing, the staff of government regulatory agencies. During a press conference last week George W. suggested he would grant their wish. "Reviewing federal regulations "that hamper the accumulation of capital' should encourage economic growth," Bush said.
If there were ever a moment when it was appropriate for all good liberals to fancy themselves in a state of siege, it's now. In the air, in factories, in oil fields, and elsewhere, capitalism and public safety are duking it out in a minute-to-minute battle over real dollars and real death. The referee has publicly announced he will recuse himself from the match, and the next four years are going to be a brutish period. So it's time to start choosing battles and fighting them, I'd surmise.
Which is why the San Francisco liberal political ferment of the past week or so has struck me as just about exactly as banal as an endlessly filmed square of ocean graveyard.
While much-needed federal regulations stand to be ravaged on the national stage, at home, activists are pursuing the idea of increased regulation in ways that would seem to negate the very reasons liberal-minded people support regulations: to improve public safety, protect the less fortunate from the more fortunate, and preserve the environment.
Last Tuesday, for example, more than 100 people turned out to a Muni Board hearing to advocate on behalf of natural gas buses -- a neat idea; don't get me wrong. Neat, but pointless and destructive.
Still, if the raucous meeting was any guide, natural gas buses will be a San Francisco progressive rallying cry for the coming political season. The only problem is, the Muni system is in the middle of a desperate push to elevate service to levels that might lure back the thousands of riders who abandoned the system during the previous decade of neglect. Those people now drive cars to work. But if Muni can exercise an option to buy 175 new diesel buses by Jan. 31, the agency will be able to replace the entire bus fleet by the year 2002, reducing the number of buses that break down and go offline, reducing the number of missed trips, and, in general, making bus transit a more efficient and pleasant proposition in San Francisco. Converting the system to natural gas, meanwhile, would require lengthy design studies, a whole new bidding process, the construction of natural gas fueling stations, and the creation of a new repair facility -- ergo, years more of awful Muni service, years when thousands and thousands of cars would clog the streets, fouling the air.
Another indication of local leftist battles to come might be found in the Board of Supervisors' "manifesto" published by attorney Sue Hestor this week. Now, I certainly hate to credit a muddle-minded shylock such as Hestor with status as an Opinion Leader. But Hestor indeed has followers, and I'm in a gregarious holiday mood, so I will. Her latest opinion is that the board must "Strengthen Neighborhoods," according to one of her manifesto's subject headings. She goes on at length, inciting our new supervisors to rise up and battle live-work lofts, a done-with, non-issue if there ever was one.
Housing construction "expanding into rear yards often takes away light, air, and livability for people next door," she said, adding that new housing along commercial strips might be allowed, but "should be met with additional protections for side streets."
Only in San Francisco, where racist, no-growth neighborhood associations are bizarrely treated as though they embody liberal ideals, would a progressive manifesto include protecting the airiness of rich homeowners' yards.
In California, state regulators are routinely scolded by EPA auditors for letting egregious polluters off with a wink and a nudge. Clean water supplies are threatened by creeping sprawl. More and more species of birds and fish are becoming endangered thanks to dwindling habitat. And in a month the family members of those 88 people bound for San Francisco on Alaska Flight 261 will commemorate a year's passage since their relatives died, perhaps needlessly, perhaps as a result of lax FAA oversight.