Aviation industry tackles safety issues as travel picks up

Delta, other aviation experts say flying remains the safest mode of travel, but issues at other airlines and with Boeing planes have raised questions among the flying public
A plastic sheet covers an area of the fuselage of the Alaska Airlines N704AL Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft outside a hangar at Portland International Airport on Jan. 8, 2024, in Portland, Oregon, following a midair fuselage blowout on Jan. 5. None of the 171 passengers and six crew members were seriously injured. (Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

A plastic sheet covers an area of the fuselage of the Alaska Airlines N704AL Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft outside a hangar at Portland International Airport on Jan. 8, 2024, in Portland, Oregon, following a midair fuselage blowout on Jan. 5. None of the 171 passengers and six crew members were seriously injured. (Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Getty Images/TNS)

A series of troubling airline incidents and upheaval at aircraft manufacturer Boeing have raised questions about air safety, as more travelers take to the skies this spring and look toward summer trips.

Aviation industry experts say flying remains one of the safest forms of transportation. The U.S. passenger airline industry also hasn’t had a major fatal crash since 2009.

But in the wake of recent headline-grabbing incidents, including a door plug ejecting out of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max and incidents at United and Southwest, industry leaders acknowledge the need for work to maintain the safety record U.S. airlines have established over the years.

“We have enjoyed in the U.S., for the past couple of decades, a very safe system,” said Hassan Shahidi, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit that does research, education and communications to improve aviation safety.

His foundation released a 2023 safety report showing no fatal jet airliner accidents, but Shahidi added: “We’re all worried that we might have complacency, we might have reduced margins of safety, because we’re not paying attention to safety culture and safety management.

After intense scrutiny that followed the door plug incident on the Alaska flight in January, Boeing CEO David Calhoun late last month announced plans to step down.

This image taken Jan. 7 and released by the National Transportation Safety Board, shows a section of the Boeing 737 MAX 9 fuselage missing the left side mid exit door plug. The plug on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 had blown out in midair two days earlier. (NTSB/National Transportation/Planet Pix via Zuma Press/TNS)

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Credit: TNS

Calhoun in a memo to employees called the accident “a watershed moment for Boeing.”

“We must continue to respond to this accident with humility and complete transparency. We also must inculcate a total commitment to safety and quality at every level of our company,” he said in the memo. “The eyes of the world are on us, and I know we will come through this moment a better company, building on all the learnings we accumulated as we worked together to rebuild Boeing over the last number of years.”

‘Changed ... my perspective’

This month, safety concerns raised by a whistleblower at Boeing prompted new scrutiny and plans for a Senate hearing.

Earlier in March, nearly two weeks before Calhoun’s announcement, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian on CNBC noted Max development differed from Boeing’s past practices.

The Chicago-based aerospace company outsourced key components of the Max to a supplier, Spirit AeroSystems.

“I don’t want to say it’s troubling but it’s different than what they’ve historically done,” he said.

“ ... That’s where I think the FAA and everyone else is probably focused.”

Spring break travel reached its peak at Hartsfield-Jackson International, with more than 335,000 passengers passing through the world’s busiest airport on Friday, March 29, 2024. That included more than 90,000 passengers passing through security checkpoints, with hundreds of thousands of other passengers arriving and connecting at the Atlanta airport. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink/AJC

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Credit: John Spink/AJC

Mayra Jimenez, a librarian who lives in Loganville, said her sister has canceled plans for a graduation trip with her to Miami “because she really doesn’t feel safe” due to the Boeing issues. Some relatives also canceled flights for her sister’s commencement in Atlanta for the same reason.

Jimenez, 31, still plans to fly to Miami by herself, but viral social media posts about Boeing have frightened her.

“It’s changed a lot of my perspective on flying,” Jimenez said. “And I just read about the whistleblower situation and, like, that made me even more nervous.”

Jimenez is not sure what it would take to make her feel safer flying but hopes the industry resolves its issues.

Though Airbus jets make up a larger share than in the past, Boeing aircraft still make up the bulk of Delta’s fleet. Bastian said he is “enormously confident” in the Boeing planes Atlanta-based Delta flies today. Delta does not have Boeing aircraft on order that he expects to be delivered over the next couple of years.

A Delta Air Lines Airbus A321 aircraft. AJC File Photo

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In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this month, Bastian said there may be “a heightened level” of attention to aircraft incidents than in the past. But, he said: “I think the traveling public in the U.S. knows that the U.S. aviation system is the safest form of transportation there is. Safer than driving, safer than a train, safer than a bike.”

Delta has placed orders for — but does not currently fly — the Boeing 737 Max, the type of jet that had a fatal crash in 2018 in Indonesia and another in 2019 in Ethiopia, which combined killed 346 people.

The 737 Max 10 planes that Delta ordered — the largest Max jet model that has not yet been certified by the FAA — were supposed to be delivered starting in 2025, but it “undoubtedly will be later than that,” Bastian said. “Whether it’s two years, or three years time, I don’t know.”

“But when the plane finally does get certified, and we have 100% confidence around the aircraft, we’ll take it,” Bastian said. “In the meantime, we’ll continue to take Airbus” aircraft deliveries.

‘Don’t see any systemic issues’

Last month, a United Airlines Boeing 737 Max slid off a taxiway in Houston. It was one of a series of recent incidents involving United planes, including a jet that lost a wheel on takeoff and a piece of aluminum skin falling off a plane, which led the CEO of United to seek to reassure travelers that safety is the airline’s top priority, the Associated Press reported.

“Whenever we have these incidents that happen one after another, it’s understandable why passengers, the flying public, would be concerned,” Shahidi said. “But we don’t see any systemic issues with respect to those incidents. Now that said, we are concerned about complacency.”

United isn’t alone in reports of recent aircraft incidents. On April 7, a Southwest Airlines jet returned to the airport in Denver after an engine cover fell off and hit a wing flap during takeoff, AP reported.

Shahidi said turnover in the aviation workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic was “an enormous shock to the system” with experienced, skilled personnel leaving the aviation industry. With travel demand coming back, “now you have a whole new workforce coming into the system while it’s expanding,” and he said mentoring of new entrants to the workforce is crucial.

Shahidi is calling on airlines, manufacturers and the Federal Aviation Administration “to really redouble their efforts to make sure that they have to good safety management systems in place.”

One step Boeing has been working on to improve quality is discussing an acquisition of supplier Spirit AeroSystems, which builds fuselages for the Max.

Along with raising questions about safety, the accidents and increased FAA scrutiny mean airlines including Delta are seeing more delays in getting new aircraft to add flights.

That’s “disappointing, as we’re looking at people wanting to travel post-COVID,” said Laurie Garrow, an aviation expert at Georgia Tech who also does work for Boeing as a consultant.

Shahidi also emphasized that safety shouldn’t be a concern for those flying to take a vacation or see loved ones.

“We have thousands of flights that ... land every day without any incidents and the only thing that passengers are worried about is making sure that make their connections,” Shahidi said.

There are things travelers can do to make sure they’re as safe as possible on flights, however.

Some recent incidents have highlighted the value of keeping your seatbelt buckled throughout the time you’re seated on an airplane — including the Alaska Airlines door plug blowout and severe turbulence incidents that resulted in injuries.

“More than 70% of the injuries that happen due to turbulence is for those that don’t wear a seatbelt,” Shahidi said. “We urge all passengers to wear their seatbelts at all times, even though the seatbelt sign may be turned off. Because clear air turbulence can happen anytime and it’s unpredictable.”