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Aviation incidents seem to be proliferating, but experts say there’s no reason for alarm

A flying tire. A runway roll-off. Multiple emergency landings.

It may seem like mishaps involving planes have been growing in frequency. But experts say there is no cause for major alarm, as the aviation industry’s safety record remains better than it’s ever been when measured by lives lost.

“This is not a safety trend,” said John Cox, a pilot and the president and CEO of Safety Operating Systems LLC, of the recent spate of high-profile incidents.

According to the aviation industry publication FlightGlobal, there were just six recorded fatal commercial aviation accidents worldwide in 2023, resulting in 115 deaths — the fewest on record.

National Transportation Safety Board data confirms the downward trend: Compared with 27 major accidents involving large U.S. carriers in 2008, there were just 20 in 2022, the most recent year for which data is available.

The rate of accidents involving injury or death to a passenger or substantial damage to a plane has also declined — from 0.141 per 100,000 flight hours to 0.112 in 2022.

In other words, the data shows flying has rarely been safer.

“There’s not anything unusual about the recent spate of incidents — these kinds of things happen every day in the industry,” said Jeff Guzzetti, a pilot and the president of Guzzetti Aviation Risk Discovery LLC.

Still, the flying public is now especially attuned to such reports — perhaps most notably because of January’s midair blowout incident on an Alaska Airlines flight involving a Boeing 737 Max 9 jet.

Among the latest high-profile events: On Friday, a United Airlines flight on a Boeing 737-800 rolled off the runway in Houston while taxiing to its gate. No one was injured. United noted the plane was operating in rainy conditions at the time.

On Thursday, a tire fell off a United Airlines flight on a Boeing 777-200 that had just taken off from San Francisco, forcing an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport. No one was injured in that incident either. Cox told The Associated Press tire incidents are usually a maintenance issue and not linked to the manufacturer. United said the plane, built in 2002, was designed to land safely without all tires in operation.

On Monday, a United Airlines flight on a Boeing 737-900 from Houston to Fort Myers, Florida, had to make an emergency landing after flames started shooting out of the engine. United said in a statement that it appeared bubble wrap entered the airfield and was ingested by the plane’s engine.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating these incidents.

The NTSB also revealed this week it was investigating a United flight on a Boeing 737 Max in February that had potentially faulty rudder pedals.

In a statement, United said it is also looking at each of the incidents, though they all appear to be unique.

“Each of these events is distinct and unrelated to one another,” the airline said. “Safety is our top priority, and we’ll continue to do everything we can to keep our customers and employees safe.”

Boeing also said it was assisting with investigations of the incidents.

Experts pointed out that each incident is unique and may not be related to United or Boeing. Even as he acknowledged the commonality of United and Boeing as the players in each of these incidents, Guzzetti said such cases were still fairly common in the regular course of flying.

“If you look at the big picture, there hasn’t been an increase in the number of incidents,” Guzzetti said. “There’s just a lot of scrutiny now because of the door-plug event, so you have a jittery public and the news media picking up all these things.”

Because consumers can use their phone cameras to immediately broadcast these mishaps over vast social media networks as they happen, that makes the public more aware of them, even if their frequency has not actually increased, Cox said.

Still, while experts say there is little cause for alarm, they acknowledge a crucial part of the air travel industry has changed in recent years — namely, that aviation personnel on average now have less experience than previous generations of pilots and maintenance crews.

“I think it’s a possibility that the lack of super-experienced and qualified pilots and mechanics could play a role in decreasing aviation safety,” Guzzetti said. “But it’s hard to quantify. I don’t think the decrease is alarming — you can’t quantify that — or even correlate it. But it’s worthy of consideration.”

Another factor that could be at play is newer airplanes. In fact, older planes were in some ways easier to manage because they were less technologically sophisticated, experts say.

But newer planes have more automatic or computerized features that may make flying easier for a pilot, but which are harder to deal with when something goes wrong.

“The evolution of airplanes is requiring changes in how we train pilots, where there’s a focus not only on understanding the systems of an airplane, but also managing that automation while keeping manual flying skills sharp,” said Cox.

Yet the reduced accident count is proof that, overall, these newer planes have made flying safer, he said.

Boeing and its 737 Max line of planes remain under investigation by the NTSB in the wake of the January blowout incident. Earlier this week, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy blasted Boeing for failing to turn over information related to its 737 Max manufacturing process; a day later, Boeing provided the names of 737 Max employees, according to Reuters.

The news wire service also reported the NTSB now plans to hold a multiple-day investigative hearing into the Max 9, likely in late summer.

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