Lucky and Good

A FLURRY of recent close calls finds us nervous. There were near misses on runways in New York, Boston, and Austin. A United Airlines jet plunged to within 800 feet of the ocean after takeoff from Maui. And so on.

The billion-dollar question is, are these incidents symptoms of something gone rotten, or a spate of bad luck? Are they harbingers of disaster, or outliers?

Much discussed are staffing woes both at the airlines and air traffic control. The post-pandemic aviation world is operating at maximum capacity, but with lesser levels of experience and expertise. The job losses during COVID aren’t just measured in raw numbers; there was a brain-drain as well, as many senior employees took early-retirement packages. Now, thousands of new-hire employees are being taken on: pilots, cabin crew, controllers, dispatchers, schedulers, mechanics. They find themselves in a high-stress environment where learning curves are steep and mistakes can be unforgiving or worse.

Whatever the root causes, it’s been alarming enough to gather the FAA and airline officials in an aviation safety summit taking place this week in Washington.

And that’s a good thing. Surely it’s better to be digging into things now, rather than after there’s a catastrophe that kills 250 people. It’s all about being proactive; identifying weaknesses in the safety chain, and fixing them.

Our vantage point is a remarkable one. Twenty-one years have passed since the last major crash involving a legacy U.S. airline. That’s by far the longest such streak in commercial aviation history. Whether you look at it nationally or globally, never has commercial flying been as safe as it’s been over the last two decades.

For a sense of how true this is, all one needs to do is flip through the accident annals of the 1960s through the 1990s, when multiple deadly crashes were the norm year after year after year, killing 200, 300, even 500 people at a time. In some years we’d rack up ten or more mishaps worldwide. In 1985, perhaps the deadliest year on record, we saw a major crash on average of once every two weeks! Even with vastly more planes in the sky, accident rates are a small fraction of what they were.

It’s not easy, I know, for the average person to keep this in perspective. The media certainly doesn’t help. Precisely because there aren’t as many serious crashes to steal the headlines, there’s a tendency to hyper-focus on even the most insignificant events, inflating and sensationalizing them. This creates an atmosphere in which it can feel like flying is becoming riskier, when really the opposite is true.

Over at that safety summit, the focus is on preventing runway collisions. At least three of the most recent incidents involved so-called “incursions,” where planes were on active runways when they shouldn’t have been. Scary, sure, but when you look at the FAA data, the number of incursions so far in 2022 and 2023 match those from 2018 and 2019 almost exactly. The numbers aren’t going up, but the attention they receive is.

It’s a double-edged sword, to a degree. The safer we are, the more obligated we are to keep it that way. Near-misses like the ones we’ve seen draw so much talk both because and in spite of how reliable flying has become. And while it’s easy to see them as warning signs, they end up making us safer in the long run.

Sure, we’ve been lucky. There’s no denying we’re overdue, and accidents, including really bad ones, will continue to occur from time to time. But also we’ve been pretty damn good, having engineered away what used to be the most common causes of crashes. Better training, better technology, and better oversight have brought us to where we are.

And so, while maybe it sounds bizarre, or disingenuous, the way I see it, for the FAA to be holding an emergency summit underscores not how overdue we might be for a crash, but rather how safe it is to fly. We’re living in an age when major disasters, once commonplace, are virtually unheard of. What they’re trying to do is keep it that way.

Reprinted with permission from Patrick Smith.