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After a Plane Starts to Fall Apart Mid-Air, Travelers Wonder: How Safe Are We, Really?

After a Plane Starts to Fall Apart Mid-Air, Travelers Wonder: How Safe Are We, Really?

(Photo: Corbis Images)

These are stressful times for air travelers.

On an American Airlines flight Monday from San Francisco to Dallas, cabin panels pulled apart from the walls of the plane, terrifying passengers and causing the Boeing 757-200 to make an emergency landing. According to the Associated Press, American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller said the incident was the result of a blown air duct and posed no danger to passengers.

But there's nothing scarier than seeing your plane start to fall apart in the sky — especially on the heels of this summer's high-profile aviation incidents, like the tragic shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine on July 17 and an Air Algerie flight with 116 people on board that crashed in Mali on July 24.  

With plane tragedies hitting the news with alarming regularity, it’s easy to see why those who already have a healthy fear of flying are absolutely on pins and needles these days. 

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For some, it’s a scary time to fly (Photo: Corbis Images)

"People afraid of flying try to deal with their anxiety by keeping it out of mind," says former airline pilot Tom Bunn, a licensed therapist and founder of SOAR — a program that helps people get over their fear of flying. But he notes that the willful ignorance “aviophobes” practice when they don’t have to fly goes away once they have a flight coming up, and seeing this recent string of flight tragedies can be terrifying. “They think if things happen all at once there’s some meaning there — that flying is getting more dangerous, otherwise this wouldn’t be happening. They’re paying attention, and it absolutely drives them up the wall.”

Related: The Airline Industry’s Hellish Summer

Some travelers try to mitigate their fear of flying by getting as much information as they can about their upcoming flights. For passengers in this situation, here’s what Bunn thinks they need to know — and what they don’t:

Flying Is Incredibly Safe 

Here’s the time when plane experts generally start quoting the famous line Superman says to people he’s rescued from aerial perils: “Statistically speaking … it’s still the safest way to travel.”

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Despite the headlines, remember that flying is still an extremely safe way to travel (Photo: Thinkstock)

Bunn has no problem doing just that. He points out that the U.S. is experiencing a stunning streak of plane safety. “When I started flying in Pan Am in 1965, the U.S. never had a year where we didn’t have a fatal crash. Sometimes two. Finally in the late 1970s we had a year without a fatal crash, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ Now, we haven’t had a fatal crash of a major U.S. airliner in over ten years.” 

Related: How One Woman Overcame Her Fear of Flying

But “statistically speaking” doesn’t work for people terrified at hurtling through the air at hundreds of miles per hour and tens of thousands of feet in the air inside a thin cylinder. “To say flying has one chance in so many million [of an accident], that’s too abstract,” Bunn says.

pilot-safety

This may calm your fears: modern pilots (and the planes they fly) are safer than ever (Photo: Thinkstock)

What he finds more helpful is showing people with flying fears how well-trained modern pilots are. “These days an airline pilot fresh out of training has more experience with emergency situations than a thirty-year veteran did back in the Sixties,” Bunn says, noting how great flight simulators are. Plus, he says, modern cockpits include tons of safety and backup (and backup backup) systems to ensure the plane stays in the air. “When I get that across to people concerned about their physical safety, that is very helpful to them,” he says.

The Age of the Plane Doesn’t Matter …

It’s often one of the first questions people ask after a plane accident: How old was the plane? Bunn says in most of the world, including the U.S., that’s an irrelevant question. “Planes go into overhaul every three to four years, and when they come out it’s like a new airplane,” he says. “So if you’re on an airplane that’s 20 years old that just came out of an overhaul, it’s in a way newer than an airplane that just came off the assembly line two years ago.”

how-old-is-the-airplane

Don’t get hung-up on the age of your airplane (Photo: Thinkstock)

And while you can use sites such as SeatGuru.com to look up the make and model of the plane on which you’re about to fly, Bunn says it’s not worth the effort — especially if you’re flying a plane operated by a major airline in the U.S., Western Europe or Japan. ”All the airplane manufacturers are building really great machines,” Bunn says. ”All of them are so good it’s not worth their trouble to go fussing over this airplane vs. that airplane.”

… But the Country You’re Flying In Might

Bunn notes that airlines and airports in Russia, China, and some African nations might be operating without the modern safety mechanisms that are common in the U.S., Western Europe and parts of Asia. Furthermore, he says, while modern airplanes are safer than ever, some of the troublesome models from the past — which have long since disappeared from service in the West — might still be flying in places such as China and, especially, Russia, where you might see some of the more trouble-prone Soviet-era models in the air.

Related: Afraid of Flying? Here’s How to Relax, from the Experts

Bunn’s website features safety records of pretty much all the major airliners in use today. It lists the Airbus 340 as the safest airliner, with about 18 million flying hours with no accidents. At the bottom of the list: the early 737-200 with JT8D turbo-fan engines. That plane has one crash per 500,000 flying hours (to put that in perspective, that’s one crash per 57 years of operation. Most of us would consider that one heck of a good driving record).

Look for the Union Label

The one piece of information Bunn believes fliers might want to investigate is probably the last thing you’d look into: whether an airline’s pilots belong to a union. Bunn says union airline pilots carry a huge safety advantage: They’re protected from reprisals for ignoring a management decision that they believe jeopardizes safety.

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Bunn believes union pilots are safer pilots (Photo: Thinkstock)

"If you’re a pilot in a union and you’re told to do something that’s unsafe, you can tell them pretty much, ‘Go stick it up your butt, I’m not doing it,’" Bunn says (although he points out that pilot would be called upon to defend that decision). However, non-union pilots in the same situation, Bunn says, would probably be fired. "It’s good to know that a pilot doesn’t have to make a choice between paying the mortgage or doing what’s right."  A quick online search of "pilots union" and your chosen airline can tell you which union, if any, its pilots belong to. 

So while it’s easy to get bogged down in the scary minutiae of the news we’ve been seeing, a little perspective is required. “Planes are so remarkably safe,” Bunn says. Statistically speaking, they really are the safest way to travel.  

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