Like a lot of air travelers, Scott Cocking feels safe when he boards a plane. But he still worries.
“I think there are things that can be done to make air travel safer,” says Cocking, a marketing executive from West New York, N.J.
Topping his list of worries: the Transportation Security Administration’s many public failures, and the ever-present fear of an aviation disaster brought to the surface by several recent events, including the terrorist bombing that killed 11 people and injured 81 in Brussels last month.
None of the world’s safest airlines are American, according to the latest numbers from the Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre in Germany. Cathay Pacific Airways, Emirates and EVA Air earned the highest marks in their safety rankings. JetBlue Airways (11th) is the top-rated U.S. carrier, and Delta Air Lines (17th) is the safest legacy carrier. Alaska Airlines is the lowest-rated, landing in the 43rd spot out of 60 carriers.
The airline industry wants you to think it’s all but crash-proof. The planes might be properly maintained, and the pilots well trained, but air travel is hardly risk-free. And it’s no coincidence that “fear of flying” courses are as popular as ever.
Cocking’s top concern — a complacent TSA — is well founded. The federal agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems (read: airports) has had well-documented issues. An internal report last year revealed that inspectors posing as passengers successfully smuggled weapons past TSA agents in 67 out of 70 tests. A second round of testing later in the year showed little improvement. The agency generates a predictable number of complaints from customers, who fear TSA’s performance makes it a weak link in aviation security.
“TSA is nothing but a hassle,” says Beth Allen, a retired paralegal and frequent air traveler from Tucson. “I continually have to be patted down because of joint replacements. My cat even gets patted down. Meanwhile other passengers are flying through security carrying knives and who knows what other potentially lethal weapons.”
Taking a big-picture view, the number of commercial airline accidents plummeted in 2015, making it one of the safest years for flying in five years.
“When you look back at the 1970s and early 1980s, there was a major airline wreck in the United States every year,” says Phil Derner, Jr., who runs a private aviation company in New York. “Annual airline crash fatalities were in the double or triple digits. Today, however, in over six years the total number of airline crash fatalities is only two. Two people, out of almost five billion people that have flown in the U.S.”
Impressive. And yet several recent incidents cast doubts on overall safety of air travel, beyond just lackadaisical airport screening. Among them are the FlyDubai crash in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, last month, which killed all 62 passengers. And looming large is a damning report by French officials about the Germanwings crash in the mountains near Prads-Haute-Bléone, France, which killed all 150 people on board. The mentally ill pilot, Andreas Lubitz, is said to have deliberately steered the aircraft into the Alps. French aviation authorities recommended improved screening for pilots.
Most worrisome is the prospect of another aviation disaster in the United States, raised by maintenance outsourcing and rapidly growing airlines, particularly low-cost carriers with older fleets.
“Old planes, warp-speed growth and a lot of maintenance issues,” says Mary Schiavo, a former U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general and author of Flying Blind, Flying Safe. “Looking at the trends, it doesn’t require a crystal ball to forecast disaster on the horizon.”
Aviation insiders dismiss concerns like those, saying the fears are being stoked by a 24/7 news cycle.
“These fixations tend to be short-lived, but they are intense enough to give people the impression that flying is becoming more dangerous,” says Patrick Smith, author of Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel. “In fact, it has become safer.”
Add up all the disasters and the worries and possibilities, and it’s no surprise those “fear of flying” programs are still in business. As the summer travel season approaches, we may not have much to worry about when it comes to airline safety. But we will anyway.
How to fly safe this summer
• If you have to fly, choose the safest carriers. In the United States, the three safest, according to the Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre, are JetBlue, Delta and Southwest.
• Steer clear of dangerous places. The riskiest places to fly are Nepal, Indonesia and Suriname, according to the site Airlineratings.com.
• If it looks too good to be true … Airlines that offer rock-bottom fares may cut in other departments as well. Something to remember the next time you see a fare so much lower than any competitors.