Clear Skies: The Revolutionary Change in Airplane Safety
Regulation by cooperation
It’s May of 1996. About 100 passengers board a plane in Miami for a short flight to Atlanta. They never make it.
Only about two months later, a flight leaves New York’s JFK airport bound for Rome. Within half an hour, it’s a fireball — the remains scattered in the waters off of Long Island. It is, at the time, the second deadliest plane accident in American history. i
Two fatal crashes, two months apart.
To state the obvious: They are utterly heartbreaking tragedies.
To state the less-than-obvious: They are the beginning of the story of how American air travel…
… got really, really safe.
If you’re nervous getting on an airplane … you’re not alone. Polls have shown as many as 55 percent of Americans feel uneasy about flying.ii
And if you’re one of them, chances are at some point someone’s told you it’s actually safer to fly on a plane than to get in a car.
Which is trueiii — but probably misses the point. After all, there’s such a thing as a minor car accident. Minor plane crash? Not so much.
But here’s something that really should put your mind at ease: Over the past few decades, America has virtually eliminated plane crashes.
In the 1990s, there were 931 deaths on American air carriers.iv In 1996 — the year of those two accidents we mentioned earlier — the New York Times warned that air travel was getting so dangerous that, if the trend continued, passenger jets could be crashing once a week by 2010.v
Which would’ve meant unspeakable terror … and probably a lot more people taking the bus.
But here’s what’s amazing … it never happened. In the entire decade of the 2010s – the number of American commercial flights that crashed … was 0. vi
So, what happened? How did we go, in 25 years, from a world where we all feared falling out of the sky … to a world where our biggest worry about flying is being on a plane with someone’s emotional support peacock? vii
Obviously, better technology helped. But a big part of the story was a revolution in the way the airlines handled safety issues.
In the old days, employees who made a mistake or witnessed something go wrong … had a big incentive to keep their mouths shut. They didn’t want to lose their jobs or face potential legal liability. In fact, one of the mechanics who worked on that flight that went down on the way to Atlanta … is still on the FBI’s most wanted list. viii
But rather than crack down even harder, the airlines solved the problem by … letting people off the hook. Kinda.
Here’s what happened: The airlines, their employees, and the FAA developed a new system — one in which the emphasis was on sharing as much data as possible. And one of the ways they did that was by holding employees harmless for innocent mistakes as long as they were forthcoming with information about what had happened.
The result: the elimination of a lot of very basic — but potentially catastrophic — errors. They created safeguards like having both pilots verbally confirm altitude changes. Or installing better signs to keep planes from getting on the wrong runway. That may not sound like much, but these kinds of minor changes can make a huge difference.
You may remember, for instance, the story of the German pilot who committed suicide by crashing into the Alps in 2015. That crash only happened because he had locked his co-pilot out of the cabin during a bathroom break. Under American rules, however, this scenario couldn’t happen; two people have to be in the cockpit at all times.ix
The track record here is pretty clear: Over the years, as the number of issues that have been reported has increased, the number of actual accidents has plummeted.x Because getting the little things right … often leads to getting the big things right.
Could this success be replicated in other fields? That’s the hope.
There’s currently an effort to introduce the same kinds of reforms to health care, which … could use it. It’s estimated that avoidable mistakes in hospitals lead to a quarter-million deaths a year. In fact, a 2016 report from Johns Hopkins estimated that only heart disease and cancer kill more Americans.xi
And there’s already evidence to suggest these kinds of initiatives could work. One study found that the simple use of a checklist during surgeries cut infection rates from 4 percent of cases to 0 — saving 1,500 lives and nearly $200 million.xii Making sure everyone in an operating room knows each other’s name — which makes them more likely to speak up — has been shown to make the average number of complications and deaths drop by 35 percent.xiii
From the airport to the OR, the principle is the same: Seemingly small changes can have huge consequences for our safety. Which will allow us all to rest a little easier — and focus on other pressing problems…
Like how these [*#%^] peacocks got on this [*$^@] plane.
- "Crime or Accident? FBI Searches for Evidence" (Rick Hampson) — Associated Press
- "Most Americans Now Worried About Flying" (Kathy Frankovic) — YouGov
- Preventable Deaths — National Safety Council
- U.S. Air Carrier Safety Data — Bureau of Transportation Statistics
- "Record Crash Death Toll in '96, But Statistically Travel Is Safer" (Adam Bryant) — New York Times
- "The Airline Safety Revolution" (Andy Pasztor) — Wall Street Journal
- “No More Emotional Support Peacocks as Feds Crack Down on Service Animals on Planes” (David Schaper) — NPR
- "FBI's Most Wanted: Mauro Ociel Valenzuela-Reyes" — Federal Bureau of Investigation
- "U.S. Airlines Use “Two-crew” Cockpit Rule To Stop Renegade Pilots" (Steve Raabe) — Denver Post
- Aviation Safety Reporting System — NASA
- Study Suggests Medical Errors Now Third Leading Cause of Death in the U.S. — Johns Hopkins Medicine
- A Simple Checklist That Saves Lives — Harvard School of Public Health
- Atul Gawande's 'Checklist' For Surgery Success — NPR
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FOOTAGE | World Health Organization //Federal Aviation Administration // Federal Bureau of Investigation // NASA: Aviation Safety Reporting System // New York Times // USA Today // The Jet Set TV // Denver Post // NBC News // Harvard School of Public Health// AP News // Pilot Institute // British Air // Aer Lingus // Delta Airlines // American Airlines // Pan Am // Paramount Pictures: Airplane! // Library of Congress: Carol M. Highsmith// Getty: Subjug, Artbeats, Simonkr, Adam Drobiec / EyeEm, AL DIAZ / Stringer, Andreas Rentz / Staff, Andrew Burton / Staff, Bernd Vogel, Bloomberg / Contributor, Devin Pickering, Gregory_DUBUS, Guvendemir, Handout / Handout, Irakli Keshelashvili, JazzIRT, Jingying Zhao, John M Lund Photography Inc, JON LEVY / Staff, Kafl, Mckyartstudio, Michael H, Monty Rakusen, Newsday LLC / Contributor, PetroglyphFilms, RHONA WISE / Stringer, Richard Sharrocks, Robert Alexander, Schroptschop, Spencer Platt / Staff, urbancow// Flickr: Kelly Michals // Adobe: Luisrftc, AboutLife, Djomas, Svitlana // FootageArchive // Steve Fitzgerald // Pexels: Ann H, Anna Shvets, Cottonbro, FW Studio, InstaWalli, Jakob Scholz, Kelly L, Nicky Pe, Nikita Nikitin, Paul Dominique Remando, Pixabay, Rafael Cosquiere, RODNAE Productions, Andrey Kirievskiy, Tim Gouw, S.R., Athena // Unsplash: Caleb Woods, David Maier, Eber Gustavo, Eduardo Velazco Guart, Gerrie van der Walt, Jeremy Bezanger, Lukas Souza, Mario Sessions, Mohammad Arrahmanur, Pham Duy Quang, Ross Sokolovski // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.
- Associated Press
"Crime or Accident? FBI Searches for Evidence" (Rick Hampson)
"Most Americans Now Worried About Flying" (Kathy Frankovic)
- National Safety Council
- Bureau of Transportation Statistics
U.S. Air Carrier Safety Data
- New York Times
"Record Crash Death Toll in '96, But Statistically Travel Is Safer" (Adam Bryant)
- Wall Street Journal
"The Airline Safety Revolution" (Andy Pasztor)
“No More Emotional Support Peacocks as Feds Crack Down on Service Animals on Planes” (David Schaper)
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
"FBI's Most Wanted: Mauro Ociel Valenzuela-Reyes"
- Denver Post
"U.S. Airlines Use “Two-crew” Cockpit Rule To Stop Renegade Pilots" (Steve Raabe)
Aviation Safety Reporting System
- Johns Hopkins Medicine
Study Suggests Medical Errors Now Third Leading Cause of Death in the U.S.
- Harvard School of Public Health
A Simple Checklist That Saves Lives
Atul Gawande's 'Checklist' For Surgery Success
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- “The Airline Safety Revolution” (Wall Street Journal)
- “U.S. Airlines Are So Safe It’s Hard to Rank Them by Safety” (USA Today)
- “Study: Commercial Air Travel is Safer Than Ever” (MIT)
- “Can Hospitals Learn About Safety from Airlines?” (Wall Street Journal)
- “A Simple Checklist That Saves Lives” (Harvard School of Public Health)
- “Here’s Why Airline Safety Videos Have Gotten So Elaborate” (New York Magazine)