Since the Jet Age began in the 1950s, air travel in the U.S. has never been safer. It’s been a decade since passengers have died in the crash of an airliner carrying more than 100 people, and there hasn’t been a deadly crash of a plane with more than 10 seats since a Colgan Air flight bound for Buffalo went down in February 2009. It’s a dramatic turnaround. From July 1994 to January 1997, an airliner crashed at least once every three months, killing a total of 805 people. “It was overwhelming,” says Frank Tullo, a former vice-president for flight operations at Continental Airlines. “They were falling out of the sky.”
The federal government intervened, but not with sweeping laws or regulations. Instead, a series of seemingly mundane, incremental changes, many recommended by the industry itself and put in place at little cost, have gradually made skies safer. “Everybody was looking for the home run that solved all of the accidents,” says Ed Soliday, a former United Airlines executive. “The more we got down to it, the things that had the biggest impact were base hits.”
After TWA Flight 800 exploded over the Atlantic Ocean in July 1996, killing 230 people, President Bill Clinton created a commission that called on the federal government and the airline industry to reduce the accident rate by 80 percent over 10 years. Groups used to working against each other—the Federal Aviation Administration, commercial airlines, manufacturers, and labor unions—formed the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) to analyze accident data and suggest improvements. Some of the changes seem obvious, yet weren’t always part of the flight plan: The pilot and co-pilot must now discuss well before landing—the most dangerous part of a flight—how they will approach the runway and agree on what they would do if they had to abort the landing. Crew members are also taught how to spot dangerous ice on the wings.
Under a program the FAA adopted at the airlines’ suggestion, pilots can report errors without fear of punishment. CAST also recommended that airlines install “terrain avoidance” systems to warn pilots if they’re too close to radio towers, buildings, or mountains. From 1982 to 1995, bad weather or dark conditions caused pilots on 12 planes to crash them into the ground, killing 420 people. No such accidents have occurred since 2005, when the FAA required airlines to install the warning devices on aircraft.
In the last five years, the odds of a U.S. plane going down and killing someone have been 1 in 49 million, a 93 percent decline from 1994 to 1998, when they were 1 in 3.7 million. Accident rates are also down in Canada, Europe, Australia, and Japan. CAST has made 185 recommendations since it first met in 1998 and continues to debate improvements. “A period of no accidents can … breed complacency that ends up causing accidents,” says Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Airlines now download data from millions of flights annually and have begun pooling records to look for dangerous patterns. “What safety is about is attacking all of those issues that lead up to an accident,” says Don Gunther, a former Continental executive and CAST’s co-chair until last year, “and really they are pretty minor.”