It's ironic that we are, right now, domestically and globally, enjoying the safest era in the history of civil aviation even as the media's relentless hyping of every mishap leads many to believe that airline travel is more perilous than ever.
Here in the United States we have not seen a large-scale crash involving fatalities for a major airline in almost eight years. That's a record dating back to the advent of the jetliner itself. Since American Airlines Flight 587 crashed just beyond Kennedy Airport in November 2001, there has been only one death at a major carrier: a small boy in an automobile that was struck by a plane skidding off a snowy runway in Chicago in 2004. Granted, there have been several nonfatal incidents (Sully-upon-Hudson, et al.) and a handful of tragedies involving regional planes (more on that later), but overall the nation's fatal accident rate has fallen 83 percent in the past 10 years.
That's why pilots consider efforts to rank one airline as "safer" than another essentially meaningless. For all intents and purposes, the rarity of serious accidents—and the many variables involved in these events—makes such comparison almost entirely academic, with one or two fatal incidents, over a span of several years, separating the "safest" from the rest.
Global climate change is destined to increase the frequency and intensity of violent storms, meaning greater number of encounters with the sort of heavy turbulence that destroyed the Air France plane this summer.
This, despite the airline industry's unprecedented fiscal woes. The fallout from the September 11 attacks led to thousands of layoffs and four major carriers' bankruptcy filings; then came the 2007-2008 fuel-spike crisis, followed by the ongoing recession. Say what you want of passenger service, but although our largest airlines have been reeling financially, they have remained impeccably safe.
Worldwide, the annual number of major accidents has held steady at around 15 over the past decade, while the number of people flying rose by roughly 20 percent each year to just over two billion. Indeed, looking back over a 30-year span, the data are remarkable. There are now twice as many commercial aircraft, carrying twice as many passengers as there were in 1980. Yet, per passenger-miles flown, air travel is an estimated five times safer.
Not long ago, as air travel was beginning to rapidly expand in places like China, India, and Brazil, experts warned of a tipping point. Unless certain deficiencies were addressed, we were told, disasters would become epidemic, at a rate of up to one per week. Fortunately, they were addressed in a seldom-acknowledged collaboration between the airline industry, regulators, pilot groups, and international organizations like ICAO. With improvements in crew training and cockpit technology, we've effectively engineered away some of the most common causes of crashes.
Now, however, we may be closing in on another tipping point due to regulatory foot-dragging, lax hiring and training standards for pilots, and a general attitude of complacency. As an airline pilot, I'm frequently asked what I think are the weakest links in the safety chain. In other words, what are some of things a pilot worries about? And what should be done about them? I will give you four.
1. Combustible batteries. High-energy lithium-ion power packs like those in found in laptop computers and other electronic devices are susceptible to a phenomenon known as “thermal runaway”—a chemical chain-reaction causing them to overheat uncontrollably. In the cargo hold of an airplane, they pose a risk that most passengers know nothing about.
There have been at least 70 incidents involving these batteries since the early 1990s. In 1999, a shipment of 120,000 batteries ignited after being unloaded from a Northwest flight. In 2004, a pallet of batteries caught fire on a FedEx plane. And three years ago, a UPS cargo jet survived an emergency landing in Philadelphia before being destroyed by a lithium-ion inferno that burned for more than four hours. New regulations took effect in 2008, but there's still the risk of large shipments of batteries making it onto aircraft unseen or improperly packaged.
If one device overheats in a passenger cabin, that fire can be readily handled with an extinguisher. The danger is a bigger fire in an under-floor baggage or freight hold. The halon-based fire-suppression systems used by commercial jets in these zones are not able to douse such fires.
2. Runway incursions. That's industry jargon for a plane or vehicle entering a runway without permission from air traffic control, creating a collision hazard. The vast majority are harmless. But the numbers have been rising, and a handful of incidents in recent years have been very close calls.
This uptick is no surprise, given the doubling of air traffic over the last three decades, much of it operating in tightly constricted airports such as LaGuardia, Reagan-National and Boston, with their spaghetti tangle of criss-crossing runways. We will never eliminate this risk completely, but a long-term solution will rely on a combination of training, airport re-design, and new technology—although I wouldn't overemphasize the latter. At heart, this is a low-tech, human factors issue.
3. Terrorism. As much as I loathe the fear-mongering and hysteria that has become so pervasive in recent times, we must reckon with the possibility of a terrorist strike. Aircraft sabotage did not begin with the attacks of 2001; it has been with us for decades, as we were reminded by the controversy over releasing the Lockerbie bomber. But through it all, we have still not correctly confronted the danger. On the contrary, we seem to have the air-crimes hierarchy upside-down.
The hijack paradigm changed forever on September 11, 2001, rendering the inflight takeover concept unworkable for a terrorist. Now the primary threat to commercial planes is, as it had been for years, the smuggling aboard of explosives. Yet the bulk of TSA's concourse protocols remain focused on the confiscation of potential hand weapons. We waste untold time and untold millions of dollars on a tedious fixation with blades and sharps. This does nothing to make us safer, and in fact draws security resources away from more worthy pursuits.
Additionally there's the danger of a rocket or portable missile attack—something extremely difficult to protect against, and that would probably occur overseas. But there’s not much we can do. Equipping all jetliners with antimissile technology is neither financially nor logistically feasible. So we need to accept that the grunt work of preventing terror attacks is the duty of law enforcement and intelligence agencies—and not just the frontline guards at airports.
4. Last but not least are worries regarding pilot qualifications at regional airlines—a touchy and multilayered issue that was thrust into the limelight after last winter's crash of a Colgan Air plane outside Buffalo, New York. Regional carriers—those curiously suffixed “Express” and “Connection” companies flying under contract for the majors—now account for half of all commercial flying in America. They share the livery of their legacy affiliates in order to provide a seamless experience for the passenger, but their employees work under very different, often very stressful conditions.
The average starting salary for a new-hire regional pilot is around $20,000 a year. That, after the candidate has spent several years and a $100,000 on his or her education and primary flight training. First officer Rebecca Shaw of the doomed Colgan flight, at the controls of a $30 million airplane, earned less than $17,000. To add insult to injury, the relationships between regional carrier pilots and management is often tense if not downright unfriendly. Pilots can be subject to all manner of hostile policies and summary discipline.
This difficult work environment has made it increasingly hard for regional carriers to attract and retain experienced crew. When I was hired as a first officer (copilot) with a regional in 1990, I had accrued 1,500 total flight hours and possessed an Airline Transport Pilot certificate from the FAA. Those were, at the time, average to below-average qualifications. By comparison, over the past few years, the regional carriers have been bringing on new hires with as little as 300-500 total hours.
How this affects safety is tough to quantify. In a lot of ways, a pilot is only as good as his or her training, and many regional carriers have training budgets in the tens of millions of dollars, using the same advanced simulators and high-tech resources as the majors. But although the raw number of hours in a pilot's logbook aren't necessarily a good indicator of skill or performance, there’s no way around the fact that there are valuable intangibles that a young, low-time pilot simply does not possess.
Combine that with the grueling schedules typically flown by regional crews. People assume that pilot fatigue is exclusive to long-haul, intercontinental flying, when in reality it's regional pilots who bear the brunt of it. Twelve-, 14-, even 16-hour-duty days are not uncommon, sandwiched between minimum-rest layovers.
In spite of all this, there is no reason for the flying public to be apprehensive about boarding a regional airline. The fact that disasters like the one near Buffalo happen so infrequently is a good indicator that there are thousands of highly skilled crews out there doing an exemplary job under tough conditions. Congress and the FAA, meanwhile, will propose regulatory changes in the months ahead addressing both hiring standards and fatigue.
Finally, there are a few hazards worthy of concern that are pretty much beyond any pilot or regulator's control. The perils of bird strikes, for example—as was demonstrated last winter on the Hudson River. Or the fact that global climate change is destined to increase the frequency and intensity of violent storms, meaning a greater number of encounters with the sort of heavy turbulence that destroyed the Air France plane this summer. There is no hard data on this, but anecdotally pilots will tell you that storms are worsening and patterns of the jet streams are changing. Veteran long-haul pilots report that the sky conditions over the North Atlantic appear different now, with thunderclouds building even in colder months.
For the threats we can control or minimize, it’s important to be proactive; tragedy feasts on procrastination. The time to act is now, implementing change across a range of fronts: operational, cultural, and technological.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that American Airlines Flight 587 ditched in November 2001. This sentence has since been corrected.
Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, author, and the air-travel columnist for Salon.com. He lives near Boston. His column is archived here.
For additional information, please visit his Web page: www.askthepilot.com