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Given recent headlines about falling airplane parts and tires, is flying safe?

Dallas, Texas –

It’s been 15 years since the last fatal U.S. plane crash, but you’d never know that by reading about a spate of aviation problems in the last three months.

There was a time when things like cracked windshields and minor engine problems didn’t show up in the news much.

That changed in January, when a panel blocking space reserved for an unused emergency door blew an Alaska Airlines plane 16,000 feet over Oregon. Pilots landed the Boeing 737 Max safely, but in the United States, media coverage of the flight quickly overshadowed a fatal runway crash in Tokyo three days earlier.

And concerns about aviation safety – particularly with Boeing aircraft – have not abated.

IS FLYING BECOMING MORE DANGEROUS?

According to the simplest measurement, the answer is no. The last fatal U.S. plane crash occurred in February 2009, an unprecedented safety issue. Last year there were 9.6 million flights.

However, the lack of fatal accidents does not fully reflect the state of safety. Over the past 15 months, a series of shortages caught the attention of regulators and travelers.

Another metric is the frequency with which pilots send an emergency call to air traffic controllers. Flightradar24, a popular tracking site, just crunched the numbers. The site’s data shows such calls have been increasing since mid-January but remain below levels seen throughout much of 2023.

Distress calls are also an imperfect indicator: the plane may not have been in immediate danger, and sometimes planes in trouble never alert air traffic controllers.

SAFER THAN DRIVING

The National Safety Council estimates that Americans have a one in 93 chance of dying in a car accident, while deaths on airplanes are too rare to calculate the odds. Figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation tell a similar story.

“This is the safest form of transportation ever created while about a 737 full of people die on the country’s roads every day,” said Richard Aboulafia, a longtime aerospace analyst and consultant. The Security Council estimates that more than 44,000 people died in car accidents in the United States in 2023.

BUT A SMALL SAFETY MARGIN

A panel of experts reported in November that a shortage of air traffic controllers, outdated aircraft tracking technology and other problems posed a growing threat to safety in the skies.

“The current erosion of the safety margin in the (national airspace system) caused by the convergence of these challenges means that the current level of safety is no longer sustainable,” the group said in a 52-page report.

WHAT’S GOING ON AT BOEING?

Many, but not all, of the recent incidents have involved Boeing aircraft.

Boeing is a $78 billion company, a leading U.S. exporter and a centuries-old, iconic name in aircraft manufacturing. It is half of the duopoly that, along with Europe’s Airbus, dominates production of large passenger aircraft.

However, the company’s reputation was badly damaged by the crashes of two 737 Max jets – one in Indonesia in 2018, the other in Ethiopia the following year – that killed 346 people. Boeing has lost nearly $24 billion over the past five years. The company has struggled with manufacturing defects that have led to temporary delays in deliveries of 737 and long-haul 787 Dreamliner aircraft.

Boeing was finally starting to get back on its feet until the Alaska Airlines Max collapsed. Investigators focused on screws that were used to secure the door panel but were missing after a repair at the Boeing factory.

The FBI is informing passengers of a criminal investigation. The US Federal Aviation Administration is increasing supervision of the company.

“How is production going at Boeing? There have been problems in the past. They don’t appear to be being resolved,” FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said last month.

CEO David Calhoun says whatever conclusions investigators come to about the Alaska Airlines bankruptcy, “Boeing is responsible for what happened on the Alaska plane.” “We caused the problem and we understand that.”

Where do design and manufacturing fit together?

The problems attributed to an aircraft manufacturer can vary greatly.

Some are design flaws. On the original Boeing Max, the failure of a single sensor caused a flight control system to point the plane’s nose downward with great force – this happened before the fatal Max crashes in 2018 and 2019. In aviation, the maxim is that the failure of one individual parts should never be enough to cause a plane to crash.

In other cases, such as the door socket that flew off the Alaska Airlines plane, a mistake appears to have been made on the factory floor.

“Anything that causes death is worse, but design is much more difficult to deal with because you have to locate the problem and fix it,” said Aboulafia, the aerospace analyst. “In the manufacturing process, the solution is incredibly simple – Don.” “Don’t do” whatever caused the error.

Manufacturing quality also appears to be an issue in other incidents.

Earlier this month, the FAA proposed ordering airlines to check the cable bundles around the spoilers of Max jets. The order was triggered by a report that a commercial aircraft during a 2021 flight tilted 30 degrees in less than a second due to electrical wiring chafing due to a faulty installation.

Even small things are important. After a LATAM Airlines Boeing 787 flying from Australia to New Zealand this month went into a nosedive and recovered, Boeing reminded airlines to check the switches on the motors that move the pilot seats. Published reports said an accidental activation of the switch by a flight attendant likely caused the crash.

NOT EVERYTHING IS BOEING’S FAULT

Investigations into some incidents indicate likely maintenance deficiencies, and many bottlenecks are due to errors by pilots or air traffic controllers.

This week, investigators revealed that an American Airlines jet that overshot a runway in Texas had undergone a brake replacement job four days earlier and that some hydraulic lines to the brakes had not been properly secured.

Earlier this month, a tire fell off a United Airlines Boeing 777 leaving San Francisco and an American Airlines Boeing 777 made an emergency landing in Los Angeles with a flat tire.

When a United Boeing 737 landed in Oregon last week, part of the aluminum skin was found missing. Unlike the brand-new Alaska jet, which had a broken body, the United plane was 26 years old. The airline is responsible for maintenance.

When a FedEx cargo plane landing in Austin, Texas, last year narrowly flew over a departing Southwest Airlines plane, it emerged that an air traffic controller had allowed both planes to use the same runway.

SEPARATION OF THE SERIOUS FROM THE ROUTINE

Aviation industry officials say the most concerning events involve problems with flight controls, engines and structural integrity.

Other things like cracked windshields and airplanes running over each other at the airport rarely pose a safety risk. Warning lights can indicate a serious problem or a false alarm.

“We take every event seriously,” said former NTSB member John Goglia, citing that vigilance as one reason for the current accident-free streak. “The challenge for us in aviation is to keep them there.”

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