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Experts say travelers should feel safe flying

Experts say travelers should feel safe flying
“We don’t have to worry that there’s something systemically wrong with aviation,” Clint Balog, an associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University told USA TODAY.

It’s been a year of heightened tension around air travel. A series of high-profile incidents has spotlighted safety at airlines and manufacturers, leading many travelers to wonder if flying is still the safest way to get around.

“We’re in a period the last couple months where there are more incidents happening, and because more incidents are happening, we’re now paying more attention to it,” Balog said. “We’re in a timeframe where we have a cluster of these incidents.”

Laura Einsetler, a captain at a major U.S. airline and author of the Captain Laura blog, said that people are also more aware of aviation incidents than they were in the past.

“One aspect is that now with social media and the internet, we’re seeing every single thing that we can possibly see that’s happening around the world. The perception is that more things are happening when at the same time, 2023 was actually the safest year in our industry of all time,” she said.

Boeing, the vaunted airplane manufacturer, has been front and center in the current wave of incidents. An explosive decompression on an Alaska Airlines flight in January brought renewed attention to its already muddied 737 Max program. Before the pandemic, two 737 Max jets crashed abroad, killing 346 people. Those early disasters cast a shadow over the latest iteration of the jet that Boeing was still trying to get out from under. The Alaska Airlines incident only narrowly avoided deaths or significant injuries, according to experts.

Cruising Altitude: I’ve covered Boeing’s 737 MAX for years. Here’s a quick rundown of the issues.

In response to that incident, the Federal Aviation Administration opened an audit of Boeing’s manufacturing processes and found the company’s safety culture lacking.

Even so, Balog said flyers should still feel safe on Boeing planes.

“I would happily fly any Boeing aircraft, including the 737 Max. It’s a great aircraft,” he said. “No organization is flawless, and when errors occur in aviation … it’s not surprising they happen in groups like this. These instances are rarely spaced out evenly.”

Einsetler, too, said passengers shouldn’t worry too much about taking to the skies.

“When you see pilots who are putting our lives on the line every day to keep everyone safe, then you can be assured that if we feel very safe and comfortable to be at the tip of the spear, to be at the front of the flight deck operating the aircraft for you, then you should feel confident that we will keep you safe,” she said.

Boeing is hardly the only aviation company that’s been in the spotlight recently.

United Airlines’ CEO Scott Kirby sent a letter to its customers on Monday responding to a series of issues that have put the airline in the headlines. In just the last two months, United planes have experienced issues including a stuck rudder pedal on landing, an engine fire and a wheel falling off a departing jet.

Kirby’s letter insisted that the incidents were all unrelated, and that United is renewing its focus on safety.

Balog said Kirby is right to assert that the incidents are one-offs.

“Fundamentally what they all have in relation is these are human factors issues, these are human error issues,” he said. “It’s not related to an aircraft, it’s related to the humans who are performing these functions. A tire falling off a Boeing 777 on takeoff is a human factors issue, it’s a maintenance issue.”

Balog said a series of incidents like what has happened at United recently can point to an organizational issue, but that it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s some inherent danger in the way United runs its operation.

Ultimately, he said, the issues currently getting attention in aviation come down to human mistakes, but those are easy enough to address and correct.

“There are going to be problems because you’ve got humans involved in these incidents and humans involved in this operation of flying the general public around. To feel safe you have to look at the overall picture,” Balog said. “No human endeavor is entirely safe. You’d be hard pressed to find any operation that is safer than commercial aviation in the world today.”

Einsetler also said that the aviation workforce has more new employees than it has in a while, so there may be some re-growing or training pains in the current period as newer hires get up to speed.

A Boeing 737 MAX 8 for United Airlines parked at Renton Municipal Airport adjacent to Boeing's factory in Renton, Washington, on Jan. 25, 2024.
A Boeing 737 MAX 8 for United Airlines parked at Renton Municipal Airport adjacent to Boeing’s factory in Renton, Washington, on Jan. 25, 2024.

What do the recent incidents mean for travelers?

While Boeing has been especially in the spotlight with recent aviation incidents, both Balog and Einsetler said passengers need to understand that each incident is largely distinct.

“In most of these cases they are unrelated events. As an industry we take note, understand and learn from so that it doesn’t happen again,” Einsetler said.

Passengers may wonder if problems at Boeing or some maintenance issue is the root cause of a particular incident, but Balog said that’s the wrong question to ask.

“As far as the passengers understanding what the root causes are, they really can’t,” he said. That’s why regulators conduct months-long investigations into aviation incidents, to really dig down and analyze all the factors that contributed.

“I don’t think there’s anything particularly organizationally wrong at Boeing. It’s not surprising that a predominance of these issues would be on Boeing aircraft,” Balog said. “There are simply more Boeing aircraft out there.”

Who is responsible for investigating aviation incidents?

In general, the National Transportation Safety Board has jurisdiction over accident and incident investigations, and the Federal Aviation Administration, as the industry regulator, also has a role to play, including designing and enforcing new rules based on the NTSB’s findings. Industry stakeholders like airplane and parts manufacturers and airlines may participate in investigations based on the specifics of each incident.

How many issues has Boeing had this year

The Alaska Airlines door plug incident was the main focus of Boeing’s problems, and while Boeing aircraft have been involved in some other high-profile incidents, including a LATAM 787 that took a dive, possibly because of an unexpected cockpit seat movement, the manufacturer has not been directly implicated.

▶ JANUARY 2024: A mid-air cabin blowout compels Alaska Air to perform an emergency landing of its recently acquired 737 MAX 9 aircraft, prompting the FAA to ground 171 of these jets and initiate an investigation. The FAA also bars Boeing from increasing MAX output, but lifts the grounding of MAX-9s once inspections were completed.

▶ FEBRUARY 2024: The NTSB published its preliminary report on the Alaska Air incident involving a Boeing 737 MAX jet. According to the investigation, the door panel that flew off the jet mid-flight appeared to be missing four key bolts.

▶ MARCH 2024: The FAA’s 737 MAX production audit found multiple instances where Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems allegedly failed to comply with manufacturing quality control requirements.

Contributing: Reuters

Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What’s going on at Boeing? A look at the current issues.

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