‘I would happily fly any Boeing aircraft’: Experts say travelers should feel safe flying

“We don’t have to worry that there’s something systemically wrong with aviation,” Clint Balog, an associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, told USA TODAY.

It has been a year of heightened tension around air travel. A series of high-profile incidents has spotlighted safety at airlines and manufacturers, leading many travelers to wonder if flying is still the safest way to get around.

“We’re in a period the last couple months where there are more incidents happening, and because more incidents are happening, we’re now paying more attention to it,” Balog said. “We’re in a time frame where we have a cluster of these incidents.”

Laura Einsetler, a captain at a major U.S. airline and author of the Captain Laura blog, said people are also more aware of aviation incidents than they were in the past.

“One aspect is that now with social media and the internet, we’re seeing every single thing that we can possibly see that’s happening around the world. The perception is that more things are happening when at the same time, 2023 was actually the safest year in our industry of all time,” she said.

Boeing, the vaunted airplane manufacturer, has been front and center in the wave of incidents. An explosive decompression on an Alaska Airlines flight in January brought renewed attention to its already muddied 737 Max program. Before the pandemic, two 737 Max jets crashed abroad, killing 346 people. Those early disasters cast a shadow over the latest iteration of the jet that Boeing was still trying to get out from under. The Alaska Airlines incident only narrowly avoided deaths or significant injuries, according to experts.

Cruising Altitude: I've covered Boeing's 737 MAX for years. Here's a quick rundown of the issues.

In response to that incident, the Federal Aviation Administration opened an audit of Boeing’s manufacturing processes and found the company’s safety culture lacking.

Even so, Balog said, flyers should feel safe on Boeing planes.

“I would happily fly any Boeing aircraft, including the 737 Max. It’s a great aircraft,” he said. “No organization is flawless, and when errors occur in aviation … it’s not surprising they happen in groups like this. These instances are rarely spaced out evenly.”

Einsetler, too, said passengers shouldn’t worry too much about taking to the skies.

“When you see pilots who are putting our lives on the line every day to keep everyone safe, then you can be assured that if we feel very safe and comfortable to be at the tip of the spear, to be at the front of the flight deck operating the aircraft for you, then you should feel confident that we will keep you safe,” she said.

Boeing is hardly the only aviation company that has been in the spotlight.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby sent a letter to its customers Monday responding to a series of issues that have put the airline in the headlines. In just the past two months, United planes have experienced a stuck rudder pedal on landing, an engine fire and a wheel falling off a departing jet.

Kirby’s letter insisted that the incidents were unrelated and that United is renewing its focus on safety.

Balog said Kirby is right to assert that the incidents are one-offs.

“Fundamentally what they all have in relation is these are human-factors issues. These are human-error issues,” he said. “It’s not related to an aircraft, it’s related to the humans who are performing these functions. A tire falling off a Boeing 777 on takeoff is a human-factors issue; it’s a maintenance issue.”

Balog said that a series of incidents like what has happened at United can point to an organizational failure, but that it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s some inherent danger in the way United runs its operation.

Ultimately, he said, human mistakes are easy enough to correct.

“There are going to be problems because you’ve got humans involved in these incidents and humans involved in this operation of flying the general public around. To feel safe you have to look at the overall picture,” Balog said. “No human endeavor is entirely safe. You’d be hard-pressed to find any operation that is safer than commercial aviation in the world today.”

Einsetler also said the aviation workforce has more new employees than it has had in a while, so there may be some regrowing or training pains as newer hires get up to speed.

A Boeing 737 MAX 8 for United Airlines parked at Renton Municipal Airport adjacent to Boeing's factory in Renton, Washington, on Jan. 25, 2024.
A Boeing 737 MAX 8 for United Airlines parked at Renton Municipal Airport adjacent to Boeing's factory in Renton, Washington, on Jan. 25, 2024.

What do the recent incidents mean for travelers?

While Boeing has been especially in the spotlight with aviation incidents, Balog and Einsetler said passengers need to understand that each incident is largely distinct.

“In most of these cases they are unrelated events. As an industry we take note, understand and learn from so that it doesn’t happen again,” Einsetler said.

Passengers may wonder if problems at Boeing or some maintenance problem is the root cause of a particular incident, but Balog said that’s the wrong question to ask.

“As far as the passengers understanding what the root causes are, they really can’t,” he said. That’s why regulators conduct monthslong investigations into aviation incidents to really dig down and analyze all the factors that contributed.

“I don’t think there’s anything particularly organizationally wrong at Boeing. It’s not surprising that a predominance of these issues would be on Boeing aircraft,” Balog said. “There are simply more Boeing aircraft out there.”

Who is responsible for investigating aviation incidents?

In general, the National Transportation Safety Board has jurisdiction over accident and incident investigations, and the FAA, as the industry regulator, also has a role to play, including designing and enforcing new rules based on the NTSB’s findings. Industry stakeholders like airplane and parts manufacturers and airlines may participate in investigations based on the specifics of each incident.

How many incidents has Boeing had this year?

The Alaska Airlines door plug failure was the main focus of Boeing’s problems, and while Boeing aircraft have been involved in some other high-profile incidents, including a LATAM 787 that took a dive, possibly because of an unexpected cockpit seat movement, the manufacturer has not been directly implicated.

▶ January: A midair cabin blowout compels Alaska Air to perform an emergency landing of its recently acquired 737 Max 9 aircraft, prompting the FAA to ground 171 of the jets and begin an investigation. The FAA also bars Boeing from increasing Max output, but lifts the grounding of Max-9s once inspections were completed.

▶ February: The NTSB publishes its preliminary report on the Alaska Air incident. According to the investigation, the door panel that flew off the jet midflight appeared to be missing four key bolts.

▶ March: The FAA's 737 Max production audit found multiple instances when Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems allegedly failed to comply with manufacturing quality control requirements. Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun announced he would leave the company by the end of the year, and other executive changes were announced.

Contributing: Reuters

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

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What's going on at Boeing? A look at the current issues.