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Are planes safe right now? How to understand flight disruptions.

Several alarming air travel incidents have made headlines in recent weeks -- a sharp plunge toward an ocean, an unnerving wobble that damaged the tail of a plane and an aborted departure after an apparent engine fire.
Last Updated : 19 June 2024, 16:45 IST

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Smoke in the cabin. A tire blowout. A cracked windshield. No shortage of problems can affect a flight, fueling traveler anxiety and contributing to thousands of daily delays and cancellations around the world.

But for all of the frustration and alarm such events cause, it can be difficult to interpret and understand their severity. Here's how aviation safety experts say travelers should think about disruptions when they occur.

Problems happen.

Several alarming air travel incidents have made headlines in recent weeks -- a sharp plunge toward an ocean, an unnerving wobble that damaged the tail of a plane and an aborted departure after an apparent engine fire.

But the most common mishaps and malfunctions, even if hair-raising, are not typically severe, experts said.

A hydraulic leak, for example, is a familiar occurrence that pilots take seriously, but it is not as disruptive as it may sound. That's because planes have backup hydraulic systems, which are used to power equipment such as landing gear, brakes, wing flaps and flight controls, allowing planes to take off, fly and land.

A plane veering off a runway, in what is known as a runway excursion, makes for captivating video and a possibly terrifying experience for those on board. But it doesn't necessarily cause significant damage to an airplane or threaten the safety of those on board.

The same is true of the wide range of mechanical or maintenance issues that can come up before takeoff, which might force a pilot to hold a plane at its gate or return to the gate from taxiing. Those incidents are important to understand and address, but they are often minor, experts said.

"The pilots are saying, 'I've been highly trained, I'm highly educated in this airplane, and we have to return to the gate and get the experts involved out of an abundance of caution,'" said Shawn Pruchnicki, a former airline pilot and an assistant professor at the Center for Aviation Studies at Ohio State University. "That is the system working perfectly. That's a good thing."

Sometimes, such problems can derail a flight or take an airplane out of commission. But in other cases, they can be fixed quickly. And because airplanes are packed with fail-safes, there are times when a flight with a malfunctioning system can safely proceed simply by relying on one or more backups instead.

Flying is a complex, gravity-defying feat that's repeated thousands of times each day in a wide range of conditions. So travelers should not be surprised when things go wrong, said Amy Pritchett, a pilot and professor of aerospace engineering at Pennsylvania State University.

"Little small components will always start to burn out or break," she said. "There will always be potholes in the pavement in the taxiway that jostles something. There's always questions of whether the weather is good enough to fly, whether you might hit turbulence or not. All these things are sources of variability that need to be actively managed."

Flying is safe.

Another thing for travelers to keep in mind is that serious flight problems are extremely rare, experts said.

Flying is safer than driving or traveling by train in part because safety is built into the design of everything from air traffic control to the airplane itself. Important systems and procedures have backups, there are rarely single points of failure, pilots receive intensive and repeated training, and airlines prepare for a wide range of possible outcomes.

"It's the safest form of transportation ever designed by humankind," said John Cox, a former airline pilot who runs a safety consulting firm. "Be careful driving to the airport."

Over the past several decades, commercial aviation safety in the United States has improved more than fortyfold, according to a 2022 analysis of commercial aviation safety conducted by the National Academies.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, typical causes of accidents include turbulence, hard landings, collisions on the ground with other planes or vehicles, and component failures, such as a malfunctioning wing flap or engine.

Flying is so safe in part because the industry generally responds to every problem, even those that pose little threat. In the United States, airlines, manufacturers and agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration and the NTSB are constantly monitoring and reviewing risks and hazards in air travel.

"The level of systems that are in place monitoring current-day commercial air transport are profound," Pritchett said. But this doesn't mean that anyone involved can lose vigilance in assessing the possibility of danger, she added.

And while trips are occasionally cut short, experts said, diverting a flight from its destination generally reflects due caution by pilots, airlines and air traffic controllers, not a life-threatening emergency. "Could we continue to our destination?" said Kenneth Byrnes, a pilot and an associate professor who leads the flight training department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "Yes, but is it the safest thing to do?"

Placing blame is complicated.

Because aviation is complex and defined by redundancy, problems rarely have a singular cause. Instead, most serious problems -- even catastrophic ones -- are a result of multiple factors.

"There's never a smoking gun, so to speak," Pruchnicki said. "There's never this 'aha' moment, when we're going through wreckage or we're going through records and we say, 'Ah, I found the single reason this plane crashed.'"

Take the episode early last year in which two planes nearly hit each other on a runway at Kennedy International Airport. The National Transportation Safety Board found that several factors had contributed to what could have otherwise been a disaster.

The pilots of one plane were distracted as they proceeded down the wrong taxiway, the agency found. At the same time, the air traffic controller who gave them instructions didn't notice because his focus was elsewhere. And a runway status light activated too late to warn the pilots of the mistake, the agency concluded.

In investigating such incidents, placing blame is not only difficult, but also generally discouraged, experts said. Kyra Dempsey, who writes about aviation accidents in a blog, Admiral Cloudberg, said that "the blameless post-mortem is a cornerstone of modern aviation safety," facilitating an open safety culture in which people are willing to report concerns.

Cox, the pilot turned consultant, said that "aviation accident investigators are really more interested in understanding cause than assigning blame because our job is to see that it doesn't happen again." Instead, "the lawyers get into blame," he said.

Perspective is important.

When a mishap occurs, it's important to keep some context in mind, experts said.

A casual observer might notice, for example, that many problems seem to affect two types of planes: Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s. But those plane families make up more than half of the commercial jets in service, so they are naturally reflected most in news coverage.

Experts also warned against confirmation bias. When an airline or a manufacturer figures in a headline-generating episode, the media and the public tend to be on alert for other problems involving the company, even those that have little to do with the company or that might not even be significant enough to attract much attention from safety agencies.

"When something happens, you need time to discover and learn about exactly what happened, and why did it happen," said Jeff Guzzetti, a former accident investigator for the FAA and the NTSB. "That's something that you can't do in a news cycle or even two news cycles."

It can take the NTSB months, and sometimes more than a year, to conduct investigations, which culminate with safety recommendations to prevent future accidents.

After a fuselage panel blew off a 737 Max during a flight in January, Boeing was intensely scrutinized, and rightly so, experts said. But several also said they received many calls from reporters in the months afterward seeking comment on problems involving Boeing planes in cases that had little to do with the company.

"Just because it's a Boeing airplane that has a mechanical problem doesn't necessarily mean that has anything to do with Boeing," Pruchnicki said.

In the episode involving the fuselage panel, the plane was virtually new, focusing attention on the manufacturer. But a manufacturer is probably not at fault when a problem occurs with a plane that was delivered years earlier and has been flying safely since, experts said.

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Published 19 June 2024, 16:45 IST

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