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For Air Travelers, More Safety and More Problems

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For Air Travelers, More Safety and More Problems


For Air Travelers, More Safety and More Problems

For Air Travelers, More Safety and More Problems

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

A decade ago, Congress challenged the airline industry to reduce the number of crashes. And despite record delays and other nuisances like lost bags, statistics show a dramatic increase in airline safety.


Now, some good news and bad news about flying in the U.S - the bad news first. Flight delays are longer than ever. The major airlines are losing backs by the tens of thousands. The good news? The risk of major airplane accidents in the U.S. keeps getting lower and lower to just a fifth of what it was in the 1990s.

NPR's Kathleen Schalch has more on this good news about safety in the skies.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH: If streaking through the sky in a metal cylinder seven miles above the earth gives you pause, consider this.

NICK SABATINI: We are living in the safest period ever in the history of aviation.

SCHALCH: That's Nick Sabatini, the top safety official at the Federal Aviation Administration. MIT statistician Arnold Barnett puts it this way. Let's say you took one domestic flight on a commercial jet every day.

ARNOLD BARNETT: You could do that for 200,000 years before the odds would shift in favor of, sooner or later, dying of a fatal crash.

SCHALCH: A decade ago, the statistics weren't looking as good. Two commercial flights crashed in 1996 alone.


Unidentified Man #1: The crash of the 747 bound for Paris claimed the lives of all onboard.

Unidentified Man #2: In the waters of New York's Long Island...

SCHALCH: Basil Barimo is a safety expert with the Air Transport Association, which represents the major carriers.

BASIL BARIMO: We were seeing accidents occurring at an alarming rate. And given the projections for growth over the next decades, the potential is there to have accidents on a very regular basis. And that was just not acceptable to our country, to the industry.

SCHALCH: Prodded by the White House, Barimo says, the industry and federal regulators set out to sharply reduce fatal crashes over the next decade.

BARIMO: There were a handful of accident causes that stood head and shoulders above all the others, things like flying airplanes into mountains or into the ground.

Unidentified Man #3: Terrain, terrain. Pull, up.

SCHALCH: I'm in the cockpit of a U.S. Airways Boeing 737 at Ronald Reagan National Airport to learn why these kinds of crashes don't happen anymore. Flight instruments now warn pilots about potentially hazardous terrain and weather conditions.

Man #3: Wind shear, wind shear.

SCHALCH: That's not all, says pilot Mark Kennedy.

MARK KENNEDY: It'll show various aircraft out there, what they're doing, climbing or descending, whether they're flying toward you or away from you.

SCHALCH: And if need be, how to take evasive action. Planes used to crash because engines stopped working. Now, the FAA's Nick Sabatini says that problem has been solved as well.

SABATINI: Pilots can go through an entire career and never experience an engine failure.

SCHALCH: But just as importantly, Sabatini says, the whole approach to preventing accidents has changed. Now, the industry and regulators aren't waiting for crashes. They're collecting, pooling and analyzing huge quantities of data, looking for minor incidents that don't result in crashes or near misses, but potentially could. Like what happened recently to U.S. Airways pilot, Ken Blichington(ph). He made a mistake.

KEN BLICHINGTON: I taxied across a runway that was in use. No one was landing or taking off, but I still shouldn't have crossed that runway without permission from the tower. We were just in a hurry, not looking around like we should have been.

SCHALCH: He reported it right away. Pilots who confessed mistakes like this used to get in trouble. That's changed.

BLICHINGTON: And instead of someone trying to punish us for having gotten into that, if it is our fault, and everybody looks at it, tries to learn from that situation.

SCHALCH: They've learned that some runways and taxiways need better signage. Pilot reports and data from black boxes have pointed to other potential hazards, like overly steep landings and alarms that go off when they shouldn't. Airlines and regulators make adjustments, and the FAA's Nick Sabatini says you can graph the results in the declining crash rate.

SABATINI: Think of that as the headlines that have never been written, the lives that have been saved. And it is huge.

SCHALCH: Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

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