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Why Air Travel Is Actually Much Safer Than You Think

Major technological advancements and improved protocols have helped enhance flight safety.

by Liz Weiss
US News & World report
Published: Aug. 25, 2016

Flying is one of the safest forms of transportation – believe it or not.
In spite of a series of high-profile incidents making headlines since 2014 – from the AirAsia Flight 8501 tragedy to the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 – air travel safety is improving. According to the International Air Transport Association, in 2015 only 1 in 3.1 million global flights resulted in an airline accident, a 30 percent decrease from flights assessed from 2010-14. "We see a continuing improvement in safety performance over time," says Rudy Quevedo, the director of safety for IATA. And significant shifts in airplane design and technology since the '70s and '80s, along with heightened regulations and training standards, are fueling the decline in airline accidents. Here's a primer on the major advancements that have helped make flying one of the safest ways you can get from point A to point B.

Improved Design
Beyond rolling out free in-flight entertainment systems and increased premium economy-class seating options, airlines are taking great strides to enhance their technology and equipment. To continually improve safety over time, "aircraft manufacturers and their partners study accidents and learn what went wrong," explains Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst for Atmosphere Research Group. Nowadays, planes are better designed and constructed with improved engines, translating to heightened reliability and fewer failures, he explains. Aircrafts are built with multiple redundant backup systems, with two or three built-in systems to control the engine if something isn't operating correctly. And though human error can occur, such as neglecting to follow a checklist or failing to correctly calibrate an instrument, "in some cases, automation can compensate," he adds. "As airplanes are designed and built, they are tested literally to the point of destruction" Harteveldt says, noting that engineers are going to great lengths to improve the margin of safety.

Flight Fear Is Common, But It's Not Grounded in Plane Crashes
Despite technological advancements decreasing the number of accident-related events, more than 6 million Americans suffer from a fear of flying identified as aviophobia or an anxiety order, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In reality, "flying is a confluence of fears," says Dr. Martin Seif, a clinical psychologist. But with an endless cycle of terrifying airplane crash coverage on the news, "people are kind of vicariously traumatized," Seif explains. By seeing these tragedies dominate the news cycle, people imagine themselves in that terrifying situation. Thirty people on the same flight could each have a different fear, such as a fear of heights or a social anxiety. "We look for reasons to hang our fear on," Seif says. "Once you're afraid, it's too dissonant not to be afraid without a reason," he explains. You likely recognize that, statistically, it's safer to fly than to drive. But for someone with flight anxiety, it's easy to disregard how unlikely something like the Malaysia flight crash is, he says.

Still, there have been few U.S. airline accidents since Sept. 11, 2001. "In Europe, the Germanwings crash and Air France 447 still trigger anxiety," explains captain Tom Bunn, a former commercial pilot who is now a licensed therapist and helps fliers overcome flight anxiety. "Though the cause of these crashes had been remedied, anxious fliers say since these tragedies were unforeseen, other dangers must be lurking." But Bunn says the industry is proactively mitigating such accidents. "When Boeing was designing the 777, engineer Todd Curtis, Ph.D., led a team to think of everything that could possibly go wrong. After listing every risk, he directed another team to develop a way to get the plane safely on the ground in every case," he says. And with few airplane-related incidents reported for the 777 and 787 models, Curtis did his job well, he adds.

New Pilot Protocols
In the aftermath of tragic events, the Federal Aviation Administration put into effect new rules in 2014 that limit the hours pilots spend in the cockpit to ensure they receive enough rest prior to flights and reduce fatigue-associated incidents. The rules require that pilots get a 10-hour minimum break prior to flight duty, with eight of those hours devoted to undisturbed sleep. The rules also mandate that pilots are restricted to flying eight or nine consecutive hours, according to their shift times.

These days, airplanes are also equipped with locked cockpit doors. The "rule of two," which was introduced in the aftermath of Sept. 11, mandates two pilots be in an airliner cockpit at all times. Plus, airplanes offer cockpit resource management, Harteveldt adds, meaning that if either pilot believes the other is doing something incorrectly, he or she can challenge their co-pilot. For example, if a captain senses the first officer is under the influence of alcohol, the pilot has the right to demand that the other pilot take a breathalyzer, he explains. "We can't overlook the people who fly," Harteveldt adds. With heightened FAA standards, flight training has also improved and simulators for training have become more realistic, he says.

Satellite Technology and Air Traffic Control Enhancements
"With rapid industry growth, you're seeing a large influx of new technology," Quevedo says. A variety of components, including satellite global positioning technology and air traffic control systems, have bolstered flight safety, he explains. Quevedo notes that positioning technology, which allows pilots to easily layout their routes and dodge inclement weather, also helps with traffic, increasing efficiency and safety.

Harteveldt points out that in addition to investments for flight navigation systems and improved satellite positioning avionics, there's been a growing investment in air traffic control, which has played a key role in boosting safety. Thanks to airports investing in ground navigation systems to enhance their infrastructure, pilots and air traffic controllers have a better awareness of other planes and can more easily prevent accidents while taxiing, he explains.

Heightened Industry Awareness and Resources
The integration of data-driven programs to boost safety and a focus on proactively targeting safety management has triggered a greater awareness in the airline industry, Quevedo says. There's been more collaboration between the industry and IATA as well as other organizations to improve safety and ensure standards in place are adequate, he says, pointing to the IATA Operational Safety Audit, which develops and executes standardized practices to enhance safety.

Aside from these measures, airlines have funneled in more money to aircraft maintenance, Harteveldt explains. "Even though airlines are always looking for ways to save money, maintenance is one of the sacred areas," he says. "Safety is job one." More changes, such as giving flight attendants additional rest and providing pilots with a heads-up display to easily view important data like air speed without looking away from the airplane's windshield will continue to help bolster air travel safety, he says. Overall "it has gotten better. It's not perfect," he says.

Liz Weiss is the Travel editor for Consumer Advice at U.S. News & World Report.