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The Airline Safety Revolution

No commercial airline in the U.S. has had a fatal crash since 2009. Here’s the story of the industry insiders who came together to build new systems and to allay the worst fears of air travelers.

4/17/2021 4:00:00 PM

After a series of airline crashes in the 1990s, some officials realized that, without changes, mass fatalities could become a weekly occurrence. There now hasn’t been a fatal U.S. airline crash in 12 years.

No commercial airline in the U.S. has had a fatal crash since 2009. Here’s the story of the industry insiders who came together to build new systems and to allay the worst fears of air travelers.

Updated April 16, 2021 12:08 pm ETOver the past 12 years, U.S. airlines have accomplished an astonishing feat: carrying more than eight billion passengers without a fatal crash.Such numbers were once unimaginable, even among the most optimistic safety experts. But now, pilots for domestic carriers can expect to go through an entire career without experiencing a single engine malfunction or failure. Official statistics show that in recent years, the riskiest part of any airline trip in the U.S. is when aircraft wheels are on the ground, on runways or taxiways.

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The achievements stem from a sweeping safety reassessment—a virtual revolution in thinking—sparked by a small band of senior federal regulators, top industry executives and pilots-union leaders after a series of high-profile fatal crashes in the mid-1990s. To combat common industry hazards, they teamed up to launch voluntary incident reporting programs with carriers sharing data and no punishment for airlines or aviators when mistakes were uncovered.

The pioneers bucked deep-seated doubts from some insiders and outright opposition from pilots’ groups worried about disciplinary blowback. By the end of the 1990s, the Federal Aviation Administration, plane maker Boeing Co. , labor representatives and the largest U.S. airline trade association all endorsed the unified, data-driven safety agenda. Together, they devised steps to make it happen.

Their approach was simple in its fundamentals but wickedly difficult to implement at the start, requiring unprecedented levels of trust among the participants. During the early stages, representatives of pilots and carriers grudgingly agreed to share information with each other, as well as with the government, regarding budding hazards and near-crashes. Tentative cooperation was dependent on FAA pledges that good-faith mistakes and procedural violations wouldn’t result in enforcement actions.

Read more: The Wall Street Journal »

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