For months now, headlines have delivered a relentless parade of tough news for nervous fliers: a runway near miss between two planes here, a midflight battery fire there, severe turbulence that projects passengers out of their seats, a 1,400-foot plunge toward the Pacific Ocean, yet another attack on a flight attendant. And then close call after close call on the tarmac.
As observers respond with bafflement — “Another one? Didn’t this just happen?” — the Federal Aviation Administration is taking note. Air travel experts convened Wednesday in Northern Virginia to “examine and address recent safety concerns” as part of a broader review. Several members of the panel pointed to turnover of the industry’s labor force as a potential safety risk.
“We are experiencing the safest period in aviation history, but we cannot take this for granted,” acting FAA administrator Billy Nolen wrote in a memo last month. “Recent events remind us that we must not become complacent. Now is the time to stare into the data and ask hard questions.”
It is difficult to say whether alarming incidents are happening more often, or the flying public is just more aware of them thanks to social media and flight-tracking sites that provide nearly instantaneous information. Official statistics can lag by weeks or even more than a year.
But some data suggests an upward trend: The number of smoke, fire or extreme heat events linked to lithium ion batteries on passenger or cargo planes reached a high of 62 last year, even before counting December.
In preliminary FAA reporting for fiscal year 2023, the number of runway incursions — incidents involving the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle or person on the protected area of an airfield — appears on pace to be lower than the previous year’s total of 1,732.
There are indications, however, that this year’s series of incidents involving passenger jets is more severe — or at least demanding more attention from investigators.
So far this year, the National Transportation Safety Board has opened investigations into six of the close-call incidents, in New York City; Honolulu; Austin; Sarasota, Fla.; Burbank, Calif.; and Boston. The agency has issued preliminary reports in three of those cases; it did not issue any reports for incursions that occurred in 2022 and only issued one involving commercial aviation in 2021.
“When we look at runway incursions, near midair collisions and other incidents where there are no injuries or damage, we are most concerned about those in which pilots, air traffic controllers or both had to take immediate action to avoid an accident,” NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said in an email.
Flying is still safe
The following month, a FedEx plane was cleared to land on a runway where a Southwest jet had permission to take off, but decided not to land because they were so close to each other. The NTSB chair told the Associated Press that the planes were believed to be within 100 feet of each other.
“The absence of a fatality or an accident doesn’t mean the presence of safety,” NTSB chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said at Wednesday’s air safety summit.
The rash of incidents comes not long after the days-long Southwest meltdown ruined holiday plans for thousands in December and an FAA system outage halted departures nationwide in January for about 90 minutes, causing thousands of delays.
Despite the series of mishaps and near misses, aviation experts stress that flying in the United States — particularly on commercial airlines — is extraordinarily safe. Globally, the International Air Transport Association said in its just-released safety report that there were five fatal accidents in 2022 involving scheduled, charter or cargo flights out of 32.2 million flights in all.
And while the series of recent events may be jarring, safety experts also point out they have nothing to do with each other.
“Battery [fires], turbulence and runway safety - they’re apples, oranges and bananas,” said Hassan Shahidi, president and chief executive officer of the Flight Safety Foundation. “They’re not the same thing and are completely different in terms of circumstances.”
Michael McCormick, an assistant professor of air traffic management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who managed airspace security for the FAA, said he wouldn’t say recent events were related or part of an alarming trend. He pointed to the rise of sites such as FlightAware and Flightradar24, which “have access now to fairly wide global surveillance of all aviation” and can report on events that might never have made news before. He said investigations into the incidents will need to be detailed to predict possible risks in the future and develop ways to address that risk.
But experts also caution that the United States should not take that safety for granted. They warn of a system that is strained after shrinking almost instantly due to the pandemic and then, in the following years, quickly ramping back up.
‘Pressure’ on pilots and traffic control
Jim Hall, a transportation consultant and former NTSB chairman, pointed to a “demographic shift” in government and the aviation industry exacerbated by early retirements during the pandemic.
“Today, the system is going back to pre-covid levels, but the experienced people that were there pre-covid, many of them are gone,” he said, referring to pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, air traffic controllers and others. “Those people have knowledge that has been lost.”
He said the loss of experience makes it difficult for the aviation system to work as well as it had - but he stressed that he wouldn’t warn people to be concerned about flying, because he believes the system remains strong.
“The whole idea of the system is to drive to where you have incidents, not accidents or tragedies when any plane goes down,” he said. Later, he added: “It’s going to take some time; we may have to deal with more incidents, we just don’t want to have accidents.”
Thomas Anthony, director of the University of Southern California’s Aviation Safety and Security Program, said individual aircraft mishaps can never be tied to any one thing.
“It’s this and that and this and that and this and that,” he said. And one of those things, he believes, is that multiple administrations have taken aviation safety and the FAA for granted.
“It is an industry that is in a state of flux and change and recovery from covid,” said Anthony, who formerly worked for the FAA and Transportation Security Administration. “There’s a lot of stuff going on and I think we’re seeing different manifestations of it.”
Dennis Tajer, a spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association and an American Airlines pilot, attributed the recent problems to the undue pressure placed on the air traffic system and its workforce. He said pilots, air traffic controllers and even mechanics are being made to “go, go, go, do more, do more, do more. And what’s happening is that we are seeing more incidents.”
Tajer also emphasized the importance of training and experience throughout the aviation industry. “It’s like any business: The longer you’re in the job, the more you’ve seen, the more you have a foundation for making the right call. It goes right across to the air traffic controllers, who do a great job, but they have such an immense amount of pressure to get airplanes off the ground.”
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association declined to comment for this story.
‘Serious incidents’ on runways
FAA data, which is only updated through the end of January, shows 28 runway incursions involving at least one passenger jet or cargo plane so far this year. None of those are in the most serious category in which a collision was “narrowly avoided,” but three fall into the second most serious, in which “there is a significant potential for collision.” In two of those cases, a vehicle was involved; the third is the JFK near miss.
“Those are the ones that we are concerned about and are monitoring very closely to find out whether there are any patterns and what the root causes are,” Shahidi said. “We want to understand them fully so that we can know what the solutions are.”
Shahidi said federal investigators are looking into the causes, but some possible factors could be weather, runway or airport “complexities,” or personnel training or experience. “It’s too early to draw any conclusions, but it’s important to recognize that these are very serious incidents and they need to be dealt with,” he said.
Earlier this month, a battery ignited during a Spirit flight, sending 10 people to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. That followed a United flight that returned to San Diego after a laptop battery caught fire; four flight attendants were taken to a hospital.
From 2014 to 2022, there were 354 verified cases of smoke, fire or extreme heat linked to lithium ion batteries on cargo or passenger flights. The number reached 54 in 2021 and 62 through November of last year.
McCormick said airlines and the FAA have worked to mitigate the risk by providing what are called “thermal containment bags” on planes that an overheating device can go into.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, urges passengers to keep battery-powered items within easy reach - under their seat or in their hand - and to not pack them deep in their carry-on bag in the overhead bin. “Keep them close by so we can get to them fast and contain the fire,” she said.
Turbulence wreaks havoc
A Lufthansa flight from Texas to Frankfurt was flying over Tennessee when it dropped suddenly, sending some passengers crashing into the top of the plane and scattering food around. The plane diverted to Washington Dulles International Airport, and seven people were hospitalized.
The FAA doesn’t track general incidents of turbulence, but it has data on serious turbulence-related injuries. Between 2009 and 2021, the most recent year for which information is available, 146 people suffered serious injuries from turbulence on commercial planes. The vast majority of the injured were crew.
A woman was killed when a corporate jet on which she was a passenger encountered severe turbulence earlier this month; that would not be included in the FAA’s total because it wasn’t a commercial flight.
Research shows that climate change is increasing the risk of turbulence, but it’s not yet clear if more planes are encountering the unsettled air.
Nelson implores passengers to follow the flight attendants’ instructions. She said travelers should keep their seat belts fastened at all times, in the event of clear air turbulence. They should be mindful of large electronics and other untethered objects, which can become dangerous projectiles if the plane hits rough air.
Unruly passengers on the decline
Disruptive behavior by passengers peaked in 2021, as travelers returned to the skies and in many cases acted out against the federal mask mandate.
But there have still been frightening episodes as recently as this month. A man faces federal charges after he allegedly tried to open an emergency exit door on a United plane and stab a flight attendant with a broken spoon during a March 5 flight.
Nelson said flight attendants are feeling the stress of the job, causing many to reevaluate their career choice.
“This is a completely different flying experience, and we are hearing more and more, ‘I’m not sure I want to do this job anymore,’” she said. “When you put that uniform on, typically that would’ve been a sign of respect and authority. We wonder if that still is going to be the case, or are we going to be the target for a violent attack?”
Passengers popping Xanax
For some travelers, the stream of incidents surrounding commercial air travel has been unsettling.
John E. DiScala, founder of the travel news and information site JohnnyJet.com, puts out a daily newsletter and frequently includes stories about concerning incidents. After suffering from a fear of flying as a young adult, he said there have been times recently when he’s canceled a trip - including when he knows the route will be stormy.
“I do keep reminding myself that flying is by far the safest mode of travel and that I do feel safer usually in the plane than I do on the freeway,” he said.
Jayne Ricco, 38, an attorney based in Washington, had an experience with sudden turbulence in Europe several years ago where it “felt like it plummeted” and items went flying. In the last few years, she’s started to take Xanax when she flies to calm her nerves.
She said seeing other people’s accounts of the aftermath of turbulence has increased her apprehension. News of several runway near misses didn’t help either.
“I remember thinking to myself: we should not be in the air,” she said. “It’s awesome that we have this, but . . . we should be on the ground.”
Still, Ricco said, she loves to travel and plans to “muscle through” flying in the future, including on a handful of vacations she’s scheduled this year.
Nelson offers reassurance to nervous fliers: “Flight attendants would not fly if we didn’t believe that it was safe. If it ever got to that point, we simply wouldn’t do it. But we can’t let it get to that place.”
She said she still considers airplanes to be the safest mode of travel, but all those headlines should be considered early warning signals for air travel.
“These incidents are like the canary in the coal mine, and we need to heed that canary,” Nelson said. “We can make it safer.”