Commercial air travel has been extremely safe. It will take work to keep it that way.
Here's another recent incident at Portland, OR (KPDX). When I first learned about it, I thought it was similar to the Austin, TX loss-of-separation. As the video in the link shows (start at about the 01:20 mark), the two UPS jets involved didn't get nearly as close. The event might not even qualify as a loss-of-separation incident. Still, the circumstances, except for the good weather, are remarkably similar. An aircraft is cleared to line up and wait as another aircraft is in the last stages of its final approach, and a go-around ensued. Go-arounds themselves are routine and have many causes. But this may be another example that the experts should review as they consider how well the system is working and what, if any, changes need to be made.
I usually don’t follow up your posts by reading comments - a hangover from less curated online experience. So I may not have heard suggestions about the sheer volume of air traffic. Is there a way to define a reasonable limit to traffic, taking into account the many human variables that you and your commenters have mentioned? A way besides “what the market will bear”? Vague question, but my fears are based on what I see at many airports - lines of people and planes, and not many margins for error. Thanks for your clear and interesting reportage, over many years.
For a useful analysis of the comparative safety of passenger transportation modes, based on 10 years of US data, see: https://turbli.com/blog/the-safest-transport-modes-ranked-by-statistics-from-10-years-of-data/
Just three of their many interesting observations:
• To cover a certain distance, flights are 1,700 times safer than cars.
• A taxi ride of 30 minutes to the airport is 13 times more dangerous than a 5 hours flight.
• If you live for 85 years and you are on a flight every single hour of it, you will have 1 out of 1,500 chances to die. In a motorcycle, you could die 6 times.
Safety is only one factor in my personal transportation choices, and some have questioned my bicycling on safety grounds, but I'm still intact at age 77 after 50 years of commuting, urban, recreational, and touring bicycle travel. I gave up motorcycles after five years on them in my 20s, and I sold my car 23 years ago, now only renting one when there's no other choice, usually for business. I limit air travel, taking direct flights whenever possible, otherwise rely on trains or buses (or sometimes my folding bike).
Mobility makes life worth living, but a lot of current systems are unsustainable--economically, socially, and environmentally. So yes, be safe, but also practice some personal ESG.
Jim, are there lessons for car drivers in aviation safety management?
FYI, I'm sure you heard of it, but just in case, Freakonomics Radio podcast just finished a 3 episode series (Episodes 534-536) on airlines and airline travel, including one on airline safety.
Check it out.
I suspect the high success rate of airline safety is due to the all important concept of "fix the problem, not the blame." If we backslide into a "Who screwed up?" attitude, we risk losing that safety record - which means potentially massive loss of life. Systems have to be "idiot proof" - meaning redundancies at every level. Human error is and always will be a factor, so "worst case scenarios" must always be considered. If there are increasing "close calls," then by all means review the procedures and increase redundancies where needed.
However, each redundancy involves greater expense and therefore cuts into profits, and so it is clear that airlines would much rather eliminate these time-consuming, profit-gobbling steps. Given the sometimes cozy relationship between the regulators and the regulated, this often results in weakened oversight. Consider the recent series of high-profile railroad derailments in the Midwest - in a quest for greater and greater profit, safety considerations can lose their urgency.
It seems remarkable that in this age of digitization that the cockpit recorders only tape two hours. Particularly since aircraft have become so reliable that they can fly multi leg flights that take nearly all day and night.
The administrator was not wrong when he said the system worked " as designed", to a point. As shown in the AUS incident, and again at BOS, flight crew and /or ATC intervention filled the gap between normal and abnormal ops. Another reason why FAR121.542 prohibits non-essential communication during critical phases of flight ( colloquially the Sterile Cockpit Rule). Both points illustrate the need for constant, distraction-free position and situational awareness. That said, it is know that pilots are not as good at monitoring as they are at 'doing' tasks assigned to modern flight management systems. Ordinary, daily routine can lead to complacency, the arch enemy of safe flying operations. Hopefully the coolest heads in the business will search deeply to find solutions to these kinds of problems that treat the disease rather than just the symptoms.
Question for James and other knowledgeable people: How much do the systems depend on the relevant people paying full attention for as long as possible?
I ask because, anecdotally, it feels like people get distracted more easily than, say, 20 or 30 years ago. We've all experienced this. Is it possible that a decrease in what's considered paying attention could increase incidents in a system with a now-dated definition of paying attention?
I'm not suggesting anything as egregious as the Lear pilots stealing glances at their phones. Just what would seem the inevitable consequences of how most of us live now.
Thanks for this important post Jim. I feel safer just knowing YOU are paying attention.