Judging from the recent news out of the airline industry, you would think boarding a commercial flight would be a guaranteed death sentence.
But despite reports of faulty landing gear and grounded flights in recent weeks, airline travel is actually safe. In fact, experts say the Federal Aviation Administration’s stepped up inspections to ensure commercial airlines’ airworthiness should serve to reassure consumers that flying is indeed a safe way to travel.
“The system is correcting itself and these things are being taken care of,” said William Voss, president and chief executive of the Flight Safety Foundation. While the airlines’ woes are more visible than normal, “it’s not necessarily a greater cause for alarm,” he said.
Voss said he’s been impressed with the response from the airline industry to increase inspections by the FAA, saying the industry is being “ultra conservative.” That in turn is good for consumers and safety, he added. “Our understanding is that they (FAA) found relatively few anomalies in the maintenance and compliance directives,’’ said Voss.
Concerns about airline safety rose after Southwest Airlines was slapped with a $10.2 million fine for missing maintenance deadlines. The FAA ordered a review of airline carriers after the Southwest Airlines incident, which resulted in American Airlines and Delta Airlines grounding flights. Adding to the concerns were reports Tuesday that UAL’s United Airlines confirmed two A320 planes that had skidded off the runway in recent months had crossed wiring in their landing gear.
While the findings of the audit aren’t expected to be announced until Friday, Laura Brown, a spokeswoman at the FAA, said the audit is indicating a high compliance with the agency’s airworthiness directive.
“The measures are designed to detect and fix problems before they get worse and get to the point of causing an incident or accident,’’ said Brown. “We are finding that the system works as designed and that airlines’ are complying with the airworthiness directives and addressing the measures that need to be addressed.” She noted that there are between 35,000 to 40,000 commercial flights per day.
According to Web site fearlessflying.com, the chances of being in an aircraft accident is about 1 in 11 million. That compares to being killed in a car accident, which the site pegs at 1 in 5,000.
Although there have been minor airline accidents, the last major airline disaster was in August 2006, when Comair Flight 5191 crashed shortly after takeoff at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., killing 46 passengers and two crew members. The crash was not due to faulty equipment but from an attempt to take off from the wrong runway. In November 2001 American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in the Belle Harbour neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., killing 260 people aboard and five people on the ground. The accident was blamed on turbulence that caused the co-pilot to move the rudder back and forth aggressively to steady the plane. The pressure tore off the vertical fin, causing the crash.
“The air travel system today is as safe as it’s ever been,’’ said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the industry’s main trade association. “We have the best safety record in the world and that’s not an accident. That’s a result of the system in place working.”
According to Castelveter, the headlines in the news are a result of the voluntary disclosure program that enables mechanics to say they made a mistake instead of relying on the FAA to look for errors. “It makes the system even safer,’’ said Castelveter, noting that the airlines are complying with the “vast majority” of the airworthiness directives.
“I would get on an airplane tomorrow,” said the spokesman. “I don’t think anyone in our organization would hesitate to fly on a plane despite the audits.”