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Flying is getting scary. But is it still safe?

By Chris Isidore, CNN

New York (CNN) — Reports of harrowing and sometimes tragic incidents aboard airplanes seem to have accelerated this year, leading many to wonder if it’s still safe to fly.

Statistics suggest that flying commercial is still the safest way to travel. But the first half of this year has been one incident after another — which could reasonably give passengers pause before booking their next flight. Even some of those who believe flying is safer than the car ride to or from the nearest airport say they understand the growing concern of passengers.

When a door plug blew out on an Alaska Airlines flight on January 5, it did more than leave a gaping hole in the Boeing 737 Max fuselage. It caused some passengers’ phones and clothing to be ripped from their bodies and sent hurtling out into the night as oxygen masks dropped and the plane made its way to the ground, fortunately without any serious injuries. And it also brought new attention to the potential hazards of flying.

It’s not just events in the air shaking the confidence of nervous flyers, but also reports on the ground. Congress has heard from a dozen whistleblowers about safety issues at Boeing, telling stories about questionable parts and “defective airplanes.”

But answering the question of whether it is still safe to fly is not so straightforward as statistics showing fewer deaths on commercial flights than on the roads or other forms or transportation might suggest.

The quick answer is that flying is safe — safer than most forms of travel — and far, far safer than car rides most people take every day without thinking twice.

“When you arrive at the airport and step aboard the pressurized tube, that’s the safest part of the trip,” said Anthony Brickhouse, a crash investigator and professor of aviation safety at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in an interview with CNN earlier this year. “You were more at risk driving to the airport.”

But it’s also true that it’s only pure luck that the American aviation industry has kept its near-perfect safety record intact.

15 nearly perfect years

Since a regional jet crashed in Buffalo, New York, in January of 2009, killing 49 on board and one on the ground, only five other people have died in accidents on scheduled commercial flights in the United States:

• Three passengers were killed in 2013 when an Asiana Airlines plane broke apart, crashing short of the runway in San Francisco.
• A passenger on a 2018 Southwest flight died when an engine cover broke off and shattered the window next to where she was sitting.
• A passenger was killed in 2019 when a small plane skidded off the runway in rural Alaska.

By comparison, an average of more than 100 people a day died on America’s roads and highways between 2003 and 2022, the most recent year for which full-year traffic deaths are available. That means nearly as many died on roads and highways every hour, on average, as the number of people who died in US commercial aviation crashes in 15 years.

However, other forms of flying are not nearly as safe.

Nearly 300 people have died since 2009 while traveling in on-demand air service, such as private jets. And nearly 5,500 people have died in general aviation, typically small planes often operated by amateur pilots.

While commercial aviation has the safest record among transit options, railroads are the second safest form of travel.

Railroads had 71 passenger deaths on commuter trains and Amtrak from 2009 through last year. But passenger trains logged far fewer miles traveled than planes or motor vehicles.

When you control for the much higher number of miles traveled by planes, it’s clearly much more dangerous to travel on the ground than to fly on a commercial US airline.

Ed Pierson is the director of the Foundation for Aviation Safety and a harsh critic of Boeing — which, in addition to the Alaska Airlines incident and the recent congressional hearings on the safety of the manufacturer’s planes, had two fatal crashes of the 737 Max, one in 2018 and one in 2019, that led to a 20-month grounding of the plane.

He said he knows the stats, but because of concerns about quality controls at the embattled aircraft maker, he still would refuse to fly on the Boeing 737 Max or have a family member do so. He has even got off a Max just before departure after he was surprised to find out he was on that particular model of plane.

Still, Pierson said he is willing to fly on most planes, even many older Boeing models.

“Taking the Max out of the equation, (flying has) been proven to be pretty darn safe,” he said in an interview with CNN earlier this year.

A rash of scary incidents

The Alaska Airlines incident is by far the most high-profile event this year, but it is hardly the only one to make headlines across the world.

On January 2, just days before the Alaska Airlines flight, a passenger plane collided with a military plane at a Tokyo airport, killing five members of the Japanese Coast Guard who were responding to an earthquake.

On March 11, a LATAM Airlines Boeing jet plunged so severely that passengers were thrown onto the ceiling of the cabin, leaving dozens so injured they need to be hospitalized upon landing.

A Southwest jet plunged to within 400 feet of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii on April 11.

A JetBlue plane and Southwest plane nearly collided on the runway of Reagan National Airport in Washington on April 18, when one was cleared for takeoff as the other was directed to cross the runway it was on.

Severe turbulence experienced over Myanmar by a Singapore Airlines plane on May 21 resulted in one passenger dying and 71 being injured, some critically.

And another Southwest jet ended up with significant damage when it experienced an unusual and unsafe back-and-forth motion known in the industry as a “Dutch roll” on a May 25 flight from Phoenix to Oakland.

There are also more minor incidents, like when a 200-pound wheel fell off a plane on takeoff, crushing parked vehicles on the ground. A jet arrived at an airport only to have a missing panel discovered. And several planes had engines catch fire.

Disaster narrowly averted

Still, most of these incidents did not involve fatalities, and the deaths that occurred were far outside of US airspace. Unfortunately, the safety record of recent years is not a guarantee of safety in the future.

The record for the nearly fatality-free US airplane travel industry is partly due to the efforts of aviation authorities, airlines and aircraft manufacturers, despite the criticism heaped on all three of those groups recently.

But mainly it’s been sheer luck. In each case, if things had gone just a little differently, the outcomes could have been much worse.

The Alaska Airlines plane that lost the door plug had flown for more than two months without the four bolts needed to keep the plug in place, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

It had made 153 flights before the door plug blew out at 16,000 feet. Twenty-two of those flights were between Hawaii and the mainland.

If the door had blown out at the normal 35,000-foot cruising altitude, or hours from the nearest airport over the open Pacific Ocean, or if the plug had gone straight back and hit the tail of the plane and caused damage, it could likely have caused a loss of the aircraft and the 177 people on board.

Near disasters for planes on the ground

On February 4, 2023, a FedEx jet came within 150 feet of the runway before its pilots realized a Southwest jet was in the process of taking off on the same runway. It was one of five such incidents in a period of just seven weeks at the start of last year in which an accident was only narrowly avoided.

And none of those were potentially as serious as the incident in July 2017, when an Air Canada jet piloted by a captain who had been awake for more than 19 hours nearly landed on a taxiway at San Francisco International Airport where three wide-body jets filled with passengers were waiting to take off.

The NTSB later determined the Air Canada jet got within 100 feet of the ground before it took off again without making contact with any of the passenger planes on the ground. The safety regulator said more than 1,000 people on the four planes might have died had the accident not been averted at the last moment.

“It would have been the worst disaster in aviation history,” Brickhouse said. “Pilots, air traffic controllers, mechanics — they’re all human, and humans make mistakes. We’ve been working toward designing the system so that when mistakes are made, we can recover from them without it being a tragedy.”

The NTSB has been calling for 24 years for a warning system in cockpits to alert of a possible collision on a runway. But so far there’s been no move to require the technology, which already exists.

“It’s going to be technology that prevents any of this from reoccurring,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy told CNN earlier this month.

Pierson said regulators, airlines and aircraft manufacturers like Boeing need to make changes.

“I think the system is under tremendous stress,” he said. “There’s a shortage of staff, in air traffic control, a shortage of pilots, of maintenance personnel, of manufacturing personnel.”

Plagued by overconfidence?

What concerns Pierson the most is the attitude that the apparent safety of the American aviation system means nothing needs to be improved.

“There’s a sense of overconfidence,” he said. “The gold standard is melting down, because we continue to try to downplay everything and talk about how safe the system is. That’s not the right mindset. That’s the mindset that gets people killed.”

Brickhouse believes the planes now in use are safe. He said the Alaska Airlines incident brought attention to a series of other events that in and of themselves don’t pose a serious threat, even if they should not have happened.

“We have safety events in aviation all the time. That is not an indictment of the aviation industry,” he said. “But after Alaska Air, it became a snowballing event and everyone became hypersensitive.”

Despite having more confidence in the safety of the system than Pierson, Brickhouse said he also wouldn’t dismiss anyone who’s fearful about flying right now or who wants to avoid a plane like the 737 Max. And he has his own concerns about things like the number of narrowly avoided accidents at the nation’s airports.

“I don’t believe in luck, but we are fortunate that these incidents did not turn into disasters,” he said. “When you have a trend that keeps occurring, you need to focus on fixing it.”

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

This is an update of a story that ran in March. CNN’s Pete Muntean and Gregory Wallace contributed to this report.

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