Airplanes and air travel have become remarkably safe. Despite a slight increase in aviation fatalities in 2020, commercial air travel has enjoyed a downward trend in fatalities over the past couple decades. Reuters reports that fatalities have dropped from 1,015 in 2005 to 299 in 2020.
Still, when things do go wrong, they tend to make the news, and the public demands answers. Often, the public interest demands that someone takes the blame, but aviation accidents are rarely simple.
Exploring the complexities
After Boeing’s 737 Max suffered a couple of high-profile crashes, the public naturally wanted to see changes. That also meant someone would need to take the fall. For a while, it seemed the authorities had found the right target for criminal charges. They focused on the company’s chief technical pilot, who was responsible for making sure pilots received proper training. His texts and emails had seemed to suggest he was fooling the FAA and other regulators. His arrest looked like a first step to justice.
Except his failures didn’t cause the crashes. At least, that’s what FAA officials claimed. They recently approached the prosecutors with a PowerPoint slide deck that argued the charges against the former chief technical pilot represented a “false narrative.” Instead, the FAA officials said the real fault lay with the company’s engineers, who failed to recognize the potential for disaster if a single part failed. Good or bad pilot training wouldn’t change the engineering error.
In their slide deck, the FAA officials claimed the chief technical pilot was a scapegoat. His arrest and the charges against him weren’t leading toward justice. They had been warped, instead, by the intense public scrutiny.
The five most common causes for crashes
While the FAA’s recent intervention draws attention back to Boeing’s engineering mistakes, design flaws are not the most common cause of airline crashes. They do, however, rank in the top five, which include:
- Pilot error: Since the 1950s, pilot errors have been the primary factor in nearly half of all aviation crashes.
- Mechanical failure: These failures do not always indicate faulty engineering. Poor or unreliable manufacturing may also play a role.
- Weather conditions: Snow, ice, fog, high winds and other forms of bad weather contribute to roughly 10% of all aviation crashes, including crashes on slippery runways.
- Sabotage: Since the 1970s, hijacking, explosives and pilot suicides have caused roughly as many crashes as bad weather.
- Poor support: The pilots, airlines and manufacturers aren’t the only people who play a role in aviation safety. Mechanics, controllers, ground crew and others all play vital roles. Their failures contribute to roughly 10% of all airplane crashes.
Importantly, most accidents involve one or more contributing factors. That means the story of the crash is rarely simple, even if the public wants it to be.
The truth matters
The public may want quick and easy answers after an aviation accident, but airlines deserve the time to get to the truth. As recent events have shown in the case of Boeing’s former chief technical pilot, the quick answers can be misleading.
Aviation crashes may make compelling news, but pilots, airlines, manufacturers and regulators have worked hard for many decades to make air travel one of the safest ways to cross great distances. They don’t deserve to be rushed into faulty charges. That doesn’t even serve the public’s true interest in safer travel. The only way to continue improving aviation safety after an accident is to make sure that the truth comes out.