First, the necessary context.
I am neither paid nor blackmailed by the airline industry to say it is always safe to fly. Anyone who's been on an airplane in the past 20 years can tell you that flying is full of frustrations, stressors, triggers, and system-level failures. Luggage gets lost, flights are canceled, space is limited, people get stuck, and passengers often get carried away and post the content of teething children.
You know the chorus.
But in the past two weeks, a new ingredient has been added to the recipe for air travel anxiety, and it hasn't hit the runway. Near-misses between take-offs and landings are fervently reported by the media, and these are serious matters. Already in 2023, there have been seven close calls with varying degrees of risk. These include incidents in Boston, Burbank, California, Austin, Texas, Honolulu, New York and Baltimore.
Add to that Logan's bush, a raging mess in the New England skies, and a Leominster man threatening violence with a jagged, broken spoon, and the result is an old-fashioned media frenzy usually reserved for hurricanes. snow and tom brady. Instagram account.
All these events are worrying and deserve reflection. But what could be lost in doomsday reports, and the Republican senator. Ted Cruz's soap opera-style questioning of FAA leadership is as much about fact as industry safety records.
“I think people are missing the point by skipping these scattered crashes,” says author and pilot Patrick Smith. "Statistically speaking, commercial air travel has never been safer. Today, serious accidents are very rare, whereas once you saw one or more every year. It's lost on people.
Smith is no fool in the business. His blog (Ask the Pilot) and book (Cockpit Confidential) offer an in-depth look at the inner workings of airlines. He is a commercial pilot who flies Boeing 757s and 767s for a living. If we were in danger, he would say so and probably quit his job. Instead, he's watching the long game.
"The media kind of captures the minor incidents because we don't have the major incidents anymore," he said. "People are drawn to anything about airplanes, especially if it suggests danger or scandal."
That's why we're focusing more on the post-riot video of Matthew McConaughey's wife moving a few loaves of bread instead of looking at the facts.
In an analysis of FAA data from 2018 to 2022, Politico found 23 accidents in the United States where commercial passenger or cargo planes nearly crashed. In four of those cases, the FAA determined that the plane had "deteriorated" from the collision.
Looking further, there have been no commercial airline fatalities in the United States since 2013, when an Asiana Airlines plane hit an embankment while landing at San Francisco International Airport. , killing three people. There has not been a fatal accident involving a US commercial airline since 2009, when the now defunct regional airline's twin-engine turboprop stalled aerodynamically and began to dive, killing 49 people on board and one on Earth.
"In 1985, there were 27 major plane crashes worldwide," Smith said. "Over the past few decades, it was common to see several serious accidents each year, killing hundreds of people at once."
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the International Air Transport Association, a trade group representing more than 300 airlines, released its annual safety report on Tuesday. He revealed that there were five fatal accidents worldwide in 2022 that resulted in the deaths of passengers and commercial airline crew, compared to seven incidents the previous year.
“In 2022, there were five fatal accidents out of 32.2 million flights,” IATA Director General Willie Walsh said in a statement attached to the publication. "This tells us that flying is one of the safest activities you can do. But although the risk of flying is extremely low, it is not without risk.
Walsh's assertion that flying is safe, but not without risk, is the giant, clumsy star of this column. Experts say the latest string of near misses is a warning sign that we are at a tipping point in aviation safety. While there are no casualties in the headlines, all parties need to sit down and start looking at what went wrong without pointing fingers.
“These near-misses are a cause of great concern to the FAA and the industry as a whole,” said James Hall, who served as chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001. “We have a workforce unskilled and underexperienced work at all levels due to COVID, from retired pilots to flight attendants and mechanics.
The high turnover rate requires additional training, he said. He is also concerned that climate change will create more turbulence for travelers and that new protocols must also be developed for these potential risks.
"Don't wait for a tragedy to happen," he said. "Plan ahead to avoid them."
Pilot shortages, as well as inexperienced pilots and airline turnover are not the only concerns. The epidemic has also led to a decrease in the number of air traffic controllers.
"The FAA requires air traffic controllers to retire at age 56," said aviation industry analyst Henry Harteveldt. “It is an admission that the work is extremely intense. During the pandemic, especially in 2020, the FAA has not been able to hire as many air traffic controllers due to COVID protocols which limit the number of people you can have indoors for training.
Hartveldt said that despite the good pay (the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the median annual salary for air traffic controllers is $127,920), the FAA competes with other industries to recruit new talent. Acting FAA chief Billy Nolen told Reuters last summer that the agency had hired 1,000 air traffic controllers at the runway.
However, Harteveldt, who knows more about aviation and its complex innards than most of us, said he wouldn't give up flying despite recent crashes.
"You have to look at the numbers and air travel remains incredibly safe," he said. “In fact, the United States is one of the safest countries in the world for air travel. You're talking to someone who just flew to Singapore and got back with no problem. I have several trips planned in the coming weeks. I don't hesitate to fly.