First, a necessary disclaimer.
The airline industry is not paying me, or blackmailing me, to tell you that air travel is still safe. Any person who has been on an airplane in the past 20 years can tell you that flying is rife with frustrations, stressors, triggers, and system-wide meltdowns. Luggage gets lost, flights get canceled, space is tight, people get stranded, and passengers often lose their temper and show the restraint of teething infants.
You know the drill.
But over the past two weeks, a new ingredient has been added to the air travel anxiety recipe, and that’s near-misses on the runway. Media outlets have been voraciously reporting about the near-misses between planes taking off and landing, and these almost-mishaps are serious business. There have been seven close calls of varying degrees of danger already in 2023. This includes incidents in Boston, Burbank, Calif., Austin, Texas, Honolulu, New York, and Baltimore.
Add to that a wing clip at Logan, violent turbulence in the skies over New England, and a man from Leominster threatening violence with a jagged, broken spoon, and the result is an old-fashioned media frenzy, the likes of which are usually reserved for snowstorms and Tom Brady’s Instagram account.
All of these events are troubling and merit coverage. But what can get lost in doomsday reporting — and Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s soap opera-style questioning of FAA leadership — are facts, such as the industry’s safety record.
“I think people are missing the greater point by jumping on these scattered incidents,” author and pilot Patrick Smith said. “Statistically, commercial air travel’s never been safer. Major accidents today are few and far between, whereas in the old days, we’d see one or more every year. That’s lost on people.”
Smith is not a shill for the industry. His blog (Ask the Pilot) and book (”Cockpit Confidential”) offer an insightful look at the inner workings of airlines. He’s a commercial pilot who flies Boeing 757s and 767s for a living. If we were in peril, he would say as much and probably leave his job. Instead, he’s looking at the long game.
“In some ways, the media is fixating on insignificant incidents because we don’t have the big ones anymore,” he said. “People are drawn to anything involving airplanes, especially if it hints at danger or scandal.”
It’s precisely the reason why we’re more focused on a post-turbulence video from Matthew McConaughey’s wife that shows some displaced pieces of bread rather than looking at, you know, facts.
In an analysis of FAA data from 2018 to 2022, Politico found 23 incidents in the United States in which commercial passenger or cargo planes came close to colliding. In four of those instances, the FAA determined that the aircraft “narrowly avoided” a crash.
Looking back even further, there hasn’t been a fatal commercial airline crash in the United States since 2013, when an Asiana Airlines plane struck a seawall while landing at San Francisco International Airport, killing three people. There hasn’t been a fatal crash involving a US commercial airline since 2009, when a now-defunct regional airline’s twin-engine turboprop experienced an aerodynamic stall and went into a dive, killing 49 people in the plane and one on the ground.
“In 1985, there were 27 major plane crashes worldwide,” Smith said. “In decades past, it was common to see multiple major accidents every year — the kind that killed hundreds of people at a time.”
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the International Air Transport Association, a trade group representing more than 300 airlines, released its annual safety report on Tuesday. It found that in 2022, there were five fatal accidents worldwide involving loss of life to passengers and crew on commercial airlines, down from seven accidents the year before.
“There were five fatal accidents among 32.2 million flights in 2022,” Willie Walsh, the IATA’s director general, said in a statement accompanying the release. “That tells us that flying is among the safest activities in which a person can engage. But even though the risk of flying is exceptionally low, it is not risk-free.”
Walsh’s statement about flying being safe but not risk-free is this column’s giant, unpleasant asterisk. According to experts, the recent string of near-misses is a warning sign that we’re at a crucial junction in airline safety. Although there were no fatalities in the headline-grabbing almost-grazes, all parties must sit down and start reviewing what went wrong without finger-pointing.
“These near misses are a major cause of concern for both the FAA and the entire industry,” said James Hall, who served as chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001. “We have a less trained and less experienced workforce at every level as a result of COVID, from pilots who took retirement down the line to flight attendants and mechanics.”
The high level of turnover requires a lot of additional training, he said. He’s also concerned that climate change will create more turbulence for travelers and that new protocols should also be developed for those potential dangers.
“You don’t wait for the tragedy to take action,” he said. “You plan ahead to avert them.”
A pilot shortage plus less experienced pilots and turnover within the airlines aren’t the only concerns. The pandemic also resulted in a reduction in the number of air traffic controllers.
“The FAA requires air traffic controllers to retire at 56,” said airline industry analyst Henry Harteveldt. “It’s a recognition that the job is an extremely intense one. During the pandemic, especially in 2020, the FAA was unable to hire as many air traffic controllers because of COVID protocols limiting the number of people you could have in an enclosed space for training.”
Harteveldt said that despite good pay (the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the median annual wage for air traffic controllers was $127,920), the FAA is competing against other industries to enlist new talent. Acting FAA leader Billy Nolen told Reuters last summer that the organization was on track to hire 1,000 air traffic controllers.
However, Harteveldt, who knows more about aviation and its complex innards than most of us, said he is not shying away from flying despite the recent mishaps.
“You do have to look at the numbers, and air travel remains incredibly safe,” he said. “In fact, the US is among the safest countries in the world for air travel. You’re talking to someone who just flew to Singapore and back without any concerns. I have several trips planned over the next few weeks. I’m not hesitating to get on an airplane.”
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.