A century after airplanes first took to the skies, the concept of flying confounds. Even though air travel is routine, leaving earth to float in an engine-powered tube still feels — at some level, to most commercial air passengers — mysterious or scary.
Any sense of terror is misplaced. Flying is safer than driving. Say it with us: Flying is safe.
Yet mistrust helps explain our fascination with flight, and our dread of air accidents. This week, a Southwest Airlines 737 headed from New York to Dallas experienced a cataclysmic engine failure, forcing it to divert to Philadelphia. One passenger died, but the captain, a former Navy fighter pilot named Tammie Jo Shults, was credited with landing the plane, saving all else aboard.
If this had been a bus that blew an engine, resulting in a single fatality, would cable news networks have interrupted their programming? Would you have read about the hero at the controls? Doubt it. There’s no suspense in highway travel. People expect to reach their destination. They don’t typically buckle up and say a prayer.
Flying is different because passengers give up control. They don’t know what’s going on in the cockpit. They can’t see much out the window. They are helpless hostages in a science experiment, with nerves on edge because the perceived margin of error is so small. Any mishap at takeoff, landing or cruising altitude could be fatal. Could be — but probably won’t be. While flying may be stressful, and turbulence terrifying, boarding a plane is not inherently dangerous. Before the Southwest incident, the last fatal accident involving a U.S. airline occurred in February 2009.
Statistically, traveling by car is far more dangerous. Fortune magazine crunched the data this way: Over their lifetimes, Americans have a 1 in 114 chance of dying in a car crash, while the odds of dying in the air, including private flights, are 1 in 9,821. You are also more likely to drown in a pool than die in a plane. There have been several recent plane crashes overseas, but 2017 was the safest year on record globally for commercial air travel, according to a Dutch consulting firm.
All was normal on Southwest Flight 1380 until one of its two engines blew apart, spewing shrapnel into the fuselage and a window. The cabin decompressed and a passenger was nearly sucked out of the plane. Oxygen masks deployed. Those aboard feared for their lives.
A Boeing 737 can fly on a single engine. Shults notified air traffic control. If you want to know who kept calm and focused, it was Capt. Shults, the country’s new favorite airline pilot. Here she is declaring an in-flight emergency: Southwest 1380 has an engine fire. Descending. And here she is on approach to Philly: We have part of the aircraft missing so we’re going to have to slow down a bit. The controllers, by contrast, sounded frazzled. When changing frequencies, she signed off with a convivial “Good day.”
Safety officials, the airline and manufacturers will determine what went wrong with Flight 1380’s engine. There will be a meticulous investigation. The result will be a safer industry. You may never fly with Shults, but you are sure to get the next-best thing: a different well-trained pilot in an industry obsessed with safety. So relax and enjoy the flight.
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