As a private pilot and lifelong aviation enthusiast, and after hundreds of commercial flights both long (16 hours) and short (20 minutes), I still get a shiver of excitement when I walk down the jetway, through the shiny metal doorway and into an airliner. I always look to the left into the cockpit, and if there is not much of a crowd, I ask to say hello to the pilots. They are usually happy to see me.
I have a flight to Nevada coming up in six weeks, and already I have checked to see what kind of planes I’ll be on. Given the recent news and tragedies for Boeing, I wanted to see if I’ll be on a 737 MAX 8. It turns out that I’ll be on a 737 for one of my five legs, but not that model. I have utter confidence in air travel in this country, but I did feel a tiny bit of relief.
The horrible, fatal accidents in the last few months — two 737 MAX 8s and one 767 — are almost unimaginable, given the amazing airline safely record of recent years. The crash of the Amazon Prime Air 767 in Texas has had less coverage than the other two, mainly because it was a cargo plane and had only three people on board.
Boeing has an enviable record in the flying world. I knew a flight attendant once who used to say, “If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going.” My first flight on a 737 was in 1971, when the plane had been in service for only four years. Since then, the 737 has grown in capacity and been vastly improved, in terms of efficiency, range and safety, primarily through technology.
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Close to the same is true for the Boeing 767, which has been in service since 1982 and is flown to Europe by all the major U.S. carriers. My first 767 trip was from Charlotte to London, on Piedmont Airlines in 1988, and my most recent was last November on Austrian Airlines, from Washington Dulles to Vienna on a plane the same age as the Amazon plane, more than 20 years. That may seem old compared to, say, cars, but airliner maintenance is thorough to a fault and older planes remain very safe.
The traveling public has developed a sense of complete airborne confidence, with no fatal accident on U.S. soil since early 2009. Nonetheless, as we have seen recently, one crash is horrible and three involving the same manufacturer approaches a crisis. I am sure that Boeing is in crisis mode, hoping that the planes themselves will not be faulted.
But the chilling similarities of the Lion Air and Ethopian crashes are worrisome. Early speculation is that new technology, installed to improve safety, somehow malfunctioned and confounded the crews.
A lot of flying is done via autopilot, with the pilot putting hands on the controls for only the first and last moments of any flight. The autopilot handles climb, cruise and descent, with the human crew monitoring systems to ensure things are working as they should. When they do not, the pilots take action based on their training
It is important to remember that no airline accident is ever the result of one discrete situation; they usually come after successive failures of equipment or personnel. There is just no telling, and until the investigations run their course no one will know. They may take a long time.
The south Atlantic crash in 2009 of Air France 447 — an Airbus A330 — was not solved for more than two years, but the findings led, as they always do, to improved safety for the flying public and continued success for the manufacturer. Today it is Boeing, throwing its immense expertise into the investigations, that needs the answers. In the meantime, I plan to just keep flying.
Bob Kochersberger, a private pilot, teaches journalism at N.C. State University