Oh Boy, There’s Been a Lot Going On With Airplanes. You Might Be Wondering if Flying Is Safe.Reading Time: 6 minutes
What Flight Safety Experts Say About Flying Right Now, A Boeing door falling off. An Airbus flight grounded after a passenger thought they’d spotted a problem. But safety experts have a clear message., Is flying really safe? What’s up with Boeing? Experts
It’s been a turbulent few weeks for aviation, to say the least. We kicked off 2024 with a door plug literally jettisoning itself off the side of a plane. In response, the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily grounded all Boeing 737 Max 9 planes with plug doors; in-house inspections at Alaska Airlines revealed that ‘many’ of those planes had loose bolts. On Jan. 10, a United Airlines Airbus A319 plane was grounded because of a faulty door indicator light. Less than a week later, a Virgin Atlantic Airbus A330 flight was canceled after a patient noticed four missing screws on the plane’s wing shortly before takeoff. (A Virgin representative told Business Insider that the missing parts did not represent a safety risk.) To cap it all off, on Jan. 20, the nose wheel of a Delta Boeing 757 plane came off and actually rolled away while the plane taxied on the runway.
In response, some people are canceling their flights. The online travel booking service Kayak saw a fifteenfold increase in the use of its filter feature, which allows travelers to exclude certain aircraft models (such as the Boeing 737 Max 9) when booking a flight. Even those who know the aviation industry intimately, and vouch for its safety, have loved ones who are fearful. ‘I had people here visiting with me last week that said they were afraid to fly home that Friday,’ says Kathleen Bangs, an aviation safety analyst and former commercial pilot. Her take on the industry might be useful for anyone planning to board a plane anytime soon: ‘You have absolutely no reason to be afraid whatsoever.’
According to the stats, it’s mind-blowingly safe to fly. A 2020 study from Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculated that the global commercial airline fatality risk between 2008 and 2017 was 1 death per 7.9 million passenger boardings (and 1 death per 33.1 million boardings in the lowest-risk countries, which include the U.S.). In comparison, you have a 1-in-15,300 chance of being struck by lightning in your lifetime. Note that flying wasn’t always this safe: In the 1960s and ’70s, the global risk was 1 death per 350,000 boardings. This massive improvement—and the ongoing disparity between flight safety in U.S.-based airlines vs. those of higher-risk countries—is a testament to the regulations, redundancies, and quality controls in the American aviation industry, according to experts.
‘Flying is literally safer than sitting on the ground,’ says Bangs. ‘I don’t know how I can stress that enough.’
This Feb. 12 will mark 15 years since a commercial plane crash has resulted in a fatality in the U.S. Bangs says no one would have bet on that a couple of decades ago. There used to be flight insurance booths in airports, she points out, so that a traveler’s family could get a payout if they died. Now it’s simply too safe for insurance companies to make money that way. ‘The system has really exceeded everyone’s expectations,’ Bangs says. ‘Nobody in aviation ever really thought you could fly this many billions of people—billions of people—every year in the U.S. and not have a fatal crash.’
Regardless of the stats, though, it’s hard to read about incident after incident and not wonder: What the heck is going on? And if this keeps happening, is it really still so safe to get on an airplane right now? So I reached out to a few aviation safety experts, like Bangs, and peppered them with questions: Are planes getting more dangerous? Is there a part of the plane that is the safest place to sit? Even if flying is still very, very, very safe, would it be reasonable to avoid Boeing? The answers were consistent—and comforting—among the group.
‘Aviation, especially commercial aviation, especially in the United States, is an incredibly safe form of travel,’ says Jeff Simon, a pilot and mechanic with an authorization from the FAA to perform aircraft inspections. In fact, he adds, it’s because aircraft incidents are so rare that they generate this much media attention.
The public tends to hear about aviation safety in the context of something going wrong. But flight data is collected minute by minute 24/7 and analyzed by the Commercial Aviation Safety Team, says Hassan Shahidi, president and CEO of the independent nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation. Monitoring healthy planes is analogous to a person getting a blood test to screen for diseases—but imagine getting that blood test every single minute. ‘If you’re only learning from rare incidents, then you’re rarely learning,’ says Shahidi. ‘Because of that proactive, predictive kind of analysis, we have a very safe system.’
OK, but given all the proactivity … how were these recent issues missed?
‘It’s a quality control issue,’ says Bangs. ‘There’s no question that Boeing has a quality control problem.’ (Even Boeing says as much: ‘We’ve taken significant steps over the last several years to strengthen our safety and quality processes, but this accident makes it absolutely clear that we have more work to do,’ CEO Dave Calhoun said in a statement, referring to the door plug flying off.)
Boeing has been accused in the past of prioritizing profit over safety. ‘I would absolutely not fly a Max airplane,’ said Ed Pierson, a former Boeing senior manager, to reporter Kiera Feldman at the Los Angeles Times. ‘I’ve worked in the factory where they were built, and I saw the pressure employees were under to rush the planes out the door.’
The experts I spoke with were oppositely equivocal, despite acknowledging the apparent quality control issues at Boeing. ‘I have flown Boeing in the last week, and I’ll fly Boeing again,’ says Simon. ‘I definitely would say there are legions of pilots out there that are very loyal to Boeing jets,’ says Bangs. ‘Most pilots I’ve talked to who fly the Max 8 love it.’ (Two planes that crashed in 2018 and 2019, killing a combined 346 people, were both new Max 8 planes; a 20-month investigation attributed the crises in part to faulty software design. The Max 8 resumed commercial flights in 2021.)
As to the apparent uptick in loose bolts and missing screws, which have happened on both Boeing and Airbus planes, Simon points to supply chain changes that came in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘When you have a highly regulated system that requires a lot of expertise, and you stress that system—changing of suppliers, changing of manufacturing, changing of staffing—you end up with a situation where you really do rely on the checks and balances built into the system to work,’ he says. In other words, more variability in how the plane is made means that the humans doing the quality checks have to be all the more attentive. And humans make mistakes.
But this leads us to the golden rule of aviation: redundancy, redundancy, redundancy.
‘What is important in aviation is to make sure that there are redundant processes and systems in place to make sure that in the event of human variability, there are no consequences of that,’ says Shahidi. That might mean there’s a backup (or two) of a hydraulic pump or computer or sensor, so should one fail there’s no issue. The system is so carefully designed with conformity in mind that most problems, which inevitably happen, do not become catastrophic or even concerning, says Simon. (The door plug that flew off midflight, of course, is an example of a serious problem that should not have happened.)
After grounding the planes with door plugs, the FAA released a statement on Jan. 11, saying, ‘The safety of the flying public, not speed, will determine the timeline for returning the Boeing 737-9 MAX to service.’ Boeing 737 Max 9 returned to the skies last week.
Even with all the redundancies and regulations in place, flying still feels so damn scary—and there’s good psychological reason for that, says David Ropeik, a retired Harvard instructor who studies risk perception. There’s a feeling of no control in a plane; plane crashes tend to be more deadly than car crashes; the idea of hurtling out of the sky is just … horrifying. ‘It’s not the odds, it’s the nature of how you’d die,’ he says, that makes people afraid.
But that doesn’t change the fact that packing your suitcase, walking through your house, and driving to the airport are all more dangerous than the flight itself. If, as a consequence of these plane incidents, people opt to drive rather than fly, it could actually result in more deaths, says Ropeik.
At the end of the day, you should do what you need to do to make yourself feel safe—whether that means sitting in the aisle seat (this helps some people regain a sense of control, says Ropeik), paying more attention to cabin and crew instructions (you should always do this, even as a seasoned traveler, says Shahidi), or not flying Boeing for peace of mind. But don’t let your fear allow you to take a bigger risk by driving cross-country when you had planned to fly. Don’t forget to wear your seat belt. And always listen to your cabin and crew, who are well trained for situations that will hopefully never happen.
‘I’m a pilot, which by nature means I’m a little bit of a control freak,’ says Bangs. But when she flies commercial, ‘I sleep like a baby in the back.’
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