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Why Airplanes Are Safe

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© Viktor Koen
Your airplane ride may be the safest part of your day.

Frequent fliers, you may have heard the legend of the pilot who bid passengers farewell after landing with these words: “The safest part of your trip is now over.” That isn’t just one pilot’s boast, it’s a truth most air travelers take for granted. Next time you climb into a taxi to make the trip from the airport to your final destination, consider this: What do you know about the cabbie in whose hands you have placed your life? How well has that car been maintained? Look out the window—are all the signal lights working? Is the road in good shape? What about the other motorists? Where did they learn to drive? How conscientious have they been about getting enough sleep and avoiding alcohol?

Safety is an accumulation of knowledge about risk converted into practice, and no other mode of transportation has been as expansive as flying in incorporating what we know about the fallibility of humans and machines. As a result, the act of hurtling through the air at 500 mph six miles above the ground is less likely to result in your demise than almost any other type of travel. From the plane seats to the cabin air to the course and altitude of the flight, every decision in commercial aviation comes after careful consideration of its impact on safety. Here, in broad strokes, are the most significant.

Airplane Design

In the past 50 years, the world’s commercial airliners have racked up nearly one billion flight hours, providing an industry meticulous about recordkeeping with a steady stream of information that is used to constantly improve the design of airplanes and engines. “We’re getting better,” says Bill Bozin, vice president of safety at Airbus Americas, explaining that all this information gives engineers a truer understanding of the machine’s limits.

“In the old days, you would design a wing to two times” what was considered the worst possible condition the airplane could encounter, Bozin says. Today, manufacturers know what happens in the real world, which prompts refinements that may make a genuine difference in safety instead of only in design.

Cockpit Technology

Many contemporary jetliners have seen their traditional mechanical controls replaced by electronic ones. These planes, called fly-by-wire, include the Boeing 777 and the 787, as well as the Airbus A330, A340 and A380. As planes transition from machine to computer, the day of “the brawny guy” pulling on the yoke is over, says Missy Cummings, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot. “We don’t need Chuck Yeager anymore.” The modern pilot is a manager of information, and technology plays the muscular role on the flight deck.

Satellite global positioning, advanced displays and telecommunication have enabled a level of flight precision impossible in earlier eras of air travel. “During the 1950s and 1960s, fatal accidents occurred about once every 200,000 flights,” says Julie O’Donnell, a spokeswoman for Boeing. “Today, the worldwide safety record is more than 10 times better, with fatal accidents occurring less than once in every two million flights.” The devices in the cockpit considered to have had the most impact on those improved statistics are the ones that warn pilots of approaching terrain or potential conflicts with other airplanes. But you’ll find more than gadgets behind the improvements in piloting.

A Certain Kind of Pilot

“Technology is no substitute for experience, skill and judgment,” explains Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who sat at the controls of a highly automated Airbus A320 on the day that he and first officer Jeff Skiles put US Airways Flight 1549 down in New York’s Hudson River. One hundred and fifty-five people survived the flight, known as the Miracle on the Hudson—a feat that Sullenberger attributes to a lifetime of flying, as well as preparation, anticipation and focus.

Airlines know the importance of good pilots and good training, which is why so much effort goes into selection and schooling. Matthias Kippenberg, a former captain with Lufthansa, is in charge of Lufthansa’s Airline Training Center Arizona, where many of the German carrier’s five thousand pilots made their first flights. Starting out on single-engine Bonanzas, students learn how to manage multiple streams of information, how to follow established routines and how to work with others.

“We are looking for a personality that ensures good communication skills, that ensures leadership potential, the ability to work as part of a team and low risk-taking,” Kippenberg says. He notes that Lufthansa “grows its own pilots,” often hiring candidates with no flying experience because general aviation in Europe is extremely expensive, and few prospective pilots have acquired skills. In contrast, U.S. carriers expect pilots to have accrued hundreds of hours on their own nickel before applying to become commercial pilots.

Pilots who can compartmentalize and remain focused are sought out by American and formerly by TWA (which American acquired in 2001). Hugh Schoelzel, who served as TWA’s vice president of corporate safety, participated in hiring hundreds of them. “If the wife filed for divorce or the kid smoked pot or you had a bad score on the prostate test, the pilot can set that aside. It’s not that they don’t worry, but you can’t worry about that while making a takeoff on a 777. Not everybody can do that, but virtually all pilots can.”


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