How Worried Should We Really Be About Airplane Safety Right Now?

Is a growing sense of anxiety about flying based on reality or headline hype? We asked aviation analysts and insiders.

Silhouette of model airplane on table top

Are concerns about airplane safety warranted or overblown?

Courtesy of Justin Lim/Unsplash

A mid-air scare on Alaska Airlines. A rapid descent of another jumbo jet that sent some passengers hurtling into cabin ceilings and seat backs. A cascade of incidents on United Airlines airplanes that caught regulators’ attention. And all of this happened within the first few months of 2024.

Aircraft safety has become the topic du jour, not to mention the butt of scorn on late-night TV. It’s no wonder that passengers are confused and perhaps leery of hopping on an airplane anytime soon. But should they be?

Many experts are cautioning that this may be a classic case of hysteria taking over a story.

“It’s getting blown out of proportion,” says Michael Derchin, a longtime airline analyst. “And it’s sad because it could be causing some people to avoid flying, if they don’t have all the facts.”

And many observers point out there have been no commercial airline passenger fatalities in these recent events.

There’s no concrete evidence to suggest that mass numbers of fliers are booking away from Boeing models or airlines in general in any way. And it’s unclear if the rapid succession of incidents indicates a broader trend, or if the timing is just a coincidence. Many involve a Boeing aircraft, but not all, and that in itself isn’t evidence of a design flaw: Most jet planes in commercial service are produced by the world’s dominant manufacturer.

To be sure, the specifics can sound alarming: Boeing again is at the center of the storm, five years after a worldwide grounding of the troubled Boeing 737 Max shook up the industry following two deadly crashes. Now it’s under the microscope again for a slew of alleged safety lapses that, regulators and safety experts say, contributed to the harrowing January 5 episode aboard an Alaska Airlines plane in which a door plug panel blew out of a 737-9 Max mid-flight. The fallout continues; just this week, Boeing’s CEO Dave Calhoun resigned, along with other top officials. That came after revelations that the manufacturer is under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and the Department of Justice, which has launched a criminal investigation into the Alaska Airlines incident.

“When we are talking about Boeing, this is really unprecedented, they have lost a lot of the credibility that they spent 80 years building,” says William J. McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project. But he adds that he is heartened by the strong response from the FAA under its new administrator Mike Whitaker in its supervision of the company. “While you could argue that what happened [to the Alaska Airlines plane] was unforgivable, it’s not an option to let Boeing fail,” he says, pointing out that it’s one of the largest exporters in the United States and one of the largest defense contractors.

Boeing, though, isn’t the only aviation company that’s under scrutiny; the FAA recently revealed that it has stepped up oversight of United Airlines following a series of snafus in the past few weeks: a plane lost a tire at San Francisco’s airport, another jet slid off a runway in Houston, and in another bizarre episode, an engine caught fire when it ingested plastic bubble wrap while taking off.

But despite all this, is this a genuine industry crisis, or does it just seem that way due to a wave of alarming headlines?

John Goglia, former NTSB member and an aviation safety consultant, says that in the case of United, at least, the events that invited FAA scrutiny “are not connected in any way, they are not systemic.”

He adds, “A pilot taxiing off the runway—it happens all the time.”

Goglia also says, “They were supposed to have fixed this four years ago,” referring to the Max grounding that followed two fatal accidents during a five-month period starting in 2018, claiming the lives of 346 people total—157 people on board an Ethiopian Airlines flight and 189 people who were flying on a Lion Air plane in Indonesia.

He and other experts emphasize that despite the rare events that draw headlines, air travel is remarkably safe and has become even safer over time due to regulatory reforms and technological advances. In fact, commercial air travel is now enjoying its safest period in history. In North America, the last fatal accident on a major commercial airline flight was 15 years ago in 2009, when a Continental Air commuter plane crashed outside of Buffalo, New York, killing all 49 aboard.

Others remind travelers that it’s important to put individual events into context. For example, the FAA tracks an average of more than 50,000 flights every day with few safety incidents.

“Safety issues are cyclical,” says Kathleen Bangs, a former airline pilot and aviation safety expert. “Years ago, the big airplane killer was a phenomenon called CFIT [controlled flight into terrain],” which, in plain English, is when a perfectly good plane is flown into the ground or other obstacle, she explains. But more recently, safety reforms, including new advanced navigation technologies, improved training, and cockpit crew coordination, have dramatically reduced the incidents of CFIT crashes around the world, according to the FAA.

The public should also be encouraged by the FAA’s rapid response to recent events.

Last year, Bangs points out, it was a series of close calls at airports that grabbed everyone’s attention, and the FAA reacted with a slew of recommendations, including cutting the number of landing and takeoff slots at congested airports and stepping up air traffic controller hiring. And before that, Southwest Airlines was under the microscope for scheduling and IT problems, and it was ultimately slapped with a massive fine, including funds that will go to travelers affected by future mishaps with the airline.

Bangs says that bodes well for the FAA’s current review of United. “When the FAA chooses to hone in on an airline and dig deeper into an airline’s safety culture and protocols, it elevates safety for all of us,” she says. “It keeps the industry on its toes.”

As for the latest round of incidents, “We won’t know for sure if there is an issue with United until the FAA gets in there, investigates, and reports on their findings, but would I have any concern flying on a major airline in the U.S.? No. I’d have concern getting to or from the airport or to or from my hotel on vacation, because that’s where the threat is—on our nation’s roads—in our cars,” says Bangs, not in the country’s airspace.

In fact, the NTSB chair, Jennifer Homendy, has recently taken to pointing out that on average 118 Americans die daily in car accidents to underscore the contrast with the airlines’ strong safety record.

According to Bangs, the odds are such that “if a person was born in a top hospital and then spent their entire life living within that top hospital, they’d still have a higher chance of dying within the confines of that building than if they were born on a Delta Airlines flight and just flew continuously—one flight after another—for 80 years.”

Barbara Peterson is Afar’s special correspondent for air, covering breaking airline news and major trends in air travel. She is author of Blue Streak: Inside JetBlue, the Upstart That Rocked an Industry and is a winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for Investigative Reporting.
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