Another Boeing plane issue? Don't fall for the headlines. | Cruising Altitude

Not all issues involving Boeings are created equal.

Boeing has been in the news a lot lately, and that’s partly because of me. As an aviation reporter, it’s my job to follow what’s going on at the company and update the public about any important developments. Where it gets a little muddier, though, is when some incident involves a Boeing airplane that is not specifically a Boeing Issue (caps intentional).

As a result of some very high-profile and serious safety incidents, Boeing is rightfully under a microscope now. But just because there’s a news appetite for it doesn’t mean that Boeing is responsible for everything that goes on with its aircraft once they leave the factory floor.

At a time when people are thinking about the planes they fly on more than usual, it can be hard to highlight relevant information without misleading readers into thinking there’s more malfeasance than there actually is.

It’s a newsroom conversation every time we see Boeing bubbling in news trends. My job is to hold Boeing accountable without fearmongering.

Aviation professionals agree that while Boeing and its practices deserve scrutiny, you should still feel all right flying on its planes.

So, let’s try to cut through the noise.

My rendering of a Boeing 737 Max.
My rendering of a Boeing 737 Max.

What’s wrong with Boeing?

“There are genuine worries about Boeing in terms of its performance as a company, its safety culture, its manufacturing culture,” Jon Ostrower, editor-in-chief of The Air Current, told me.

It’s hard to boil down the problems at Boeing because they didn’t happen overnight. They’re systemic and the result of a series of small changes and corporate decisions over decades that de-emphasized engineering excellence and safety and put extra importance on shareholder returns. But that’s not the only thing.

“During COVID we had a lot of retirements that happened both on the pilot front and the mechanic front, and there was a lot of senior expertise that left,” Laurie Garrow, a civil engineering professor specializing in aviation at Georgia Tech, told me. “The senior expertise probably provided a series of checks and balances that are being relearned and reinstitutionalized in some companies.”

Garrow is on a consulting contract with Boeing on unrelated issues. She said her perspective applies to not just Boeing but the aviation industry as a whole.

According to Ostrower, Boeing needs to change its corporate culture to emerge from the current shadow.

“Boeing’s behavior in terms of the design of the 737 Max is an aberration in an otherwise phenomenally safe system,” he said. “They need to put themselves back together, and I mean that quite literally. There has been an internal breakup of the company over decades that has fractured their workforce, both the engineers and the machinists, spiritually and geographically.”

Boeing is, of course, under investigation by federal regulators as a result of these issues. It’s unclear what the outcome of those investigations will be, but it seems likely that some internal company changes will be required.

What airplane issues is Boeing responsible for?

“What’s going on at Boeing is distinctly separate from the types of issues that happen in service, that by the way, would largely go unnoticed or unreported on if it wasn’t what happened on Alaska 1282,” Ostrower said.

Said another way: A Boeing plane can be involved in an incident that has nothing to do with Boeing itself.

“There is a pile-on fixation that happens in the broader media landscape,” Ostrower said. “That is a function of how people are feeling about their confidence in Boeing, but it fundamentally is not related to anything that’s been going on at Boeing.”

Garrow pointed out that aviation is extremely safe overall and has only gotten safer over time.

“A lot of the safety features have redundancy. A lot of the kinks have been worked out,” she said. “Not every aircraft flies perfectly, there are maintenance issues that happen, but they are getting increased scrutiny right now.”

Of course, Boeing is responsible for manufacturing defects like the missing bolts that led to the Alaska Airlines explosive decompression earlier this year. But as an airframer, Boeing doesn’t manufacture things like engines – those are supplied by other companies – or place the tires on planes that have been in service for many years. Once an aircraft is away from the factory, airlines largely take over its maintenance.

“If a flight is delayed because of a problem, it’s because someone has noticed it and it’s being addressed,” Ostrower said.

That’s the system working.

“These are incredibly complex machines, and they run at a reliability level that is truly extraordinary,” Ostrower added. “There are levels of redundancy. You can defer maintenance items in a safe and well-understood way. … 'This component wasn’t active on my airplane, and that’s fine, you can operate safely with that, it’s approved to do that.'”

What is an emergency landing?

Another gray area when it comes to the news is emergency landings. A casual traveler understandably hears the word “emergency” and thinks of the absolute worst case. Still, the Federal Aviation Administration allows, and in fact encourages, pilots to declare an emergency in any “distress or urgency condition.”

According to the pilot/controller glossary, that can include “a condition of being concerned about safety and of requiring timely but not immediate assistance.”

Aviation safety is built on redundancy and overcaution, so a pilot declaring an emergency is usually another sign that the system is working as designed. It doesn’t always bear being reported on.

Are Boeing airplanes safe?

The short answer is yes.

“Trust has been broken at Boeing and the airlines are paying for that,” Ostrower said. “It makes it really hard for us to say ‘Trust the airlines and their processes,’ but you have to because there’s ample evidence and ample history and safety culture to back that up.”

Thousands of Boeing aircraft fly without incident every day. Eventually, the company’s place at the top of the news cycle will fade, though the focus on safety throughout aviation will remain as it always has.

“People shouldn’t have to think about what kind of airplane they’re getting on, and we need to get back to that,” Ostrower said. “The way we’re going to get back to that is through getting not just Boeing but the airlines on a reliable footing.”

In the meantime, Garrow said, travelers should consider the bigger picture.

“The few times an aircraft has gone down or there has been a major accident. I personally have found it very difficult the next day to get on a flight if I’m traveling. Aviation has one of the best safety records of all of the modes and I personally don’t want to change my life – not go on my dream vacation to Europe or not go on my professional trip that I literally could not drive to – because of a fear of flying,” she said. “I just always remind myself that aviation has had one of the best safety records, and I’m comforted by the fact that I’m not driving the plane, that I have two experienced pilots that have been trained for multiple safety scenarios, and I’m in good hands when I travel.”

Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why you shouldn't be afraid to fly on a Boeing | Cruising Altitude