Plans have been made, flights booked, bags packed. Yep, it’s holiday travel season. But what if you’re nervous to get on that plane? Or cringe at the thought of airport security lines? Take a deep breath and let Marion C. Blakey, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association—and former administrator of the Federal Aviation Association—give you reasons not to worry.
“One of the things many people who fly don’t realize is, not only is it the safest mode of transportation, by far statistically safer than getting in your car, but even when there are accidents —and I’m talking about when a plane comes out of the sky, not just clipping a wing at the terminal —the vast majority are survivable,” she says. “Survivability is much higher than people know—above 90 percent. Just knowing that can be reassuring.”
We spoke with Blakey about common flying fears, how to inform yourself on airplane safety and ways to make your holiday air travel experience easier. An edited version of the interview follows.
MORE: With travel season getting in high gear, what are the most common fears people have when it comes to flying?
Marion Blakey: You can put them into two categories, catastrophic and annoyance. I think a lot of people are reluctant to fly, in part, because they perceive there’s a lot of hassle. But if you’re talking about the true fear of flying—people who are worrying that we’re up at 30,000 feet and can’t put our feet down—I think it helps to point out some of the facts. Not only do we have an extraordinarily safe system these days, but if you look at the curve on aviation accidents—and I’m talking about commercial, not general aviation—there’s a dramatic drop in the number of accidents and certainly of fatal crashes since deregulation of the airlines back in the late ‘70s.
MORE: So knowing air travel really is safe can help calm some nervous flyers?
MB: I think people who are afraid of flying probably don’t have as much background on the kind of safety training the crews of any airline go through. We see flight attendants as being people who are there to cater to the wishes we have as passengers, but there’s a lot more to those jobs. Their training is extensive and they really do know a tremendous amount about safely evacuating [a plane] and addressing safety issues as they come up. If you’re a nervous flyer, it probably would helps to spend a little time talking to a flight attendant about those things because they can provide you with important information.
Survivability also goes to things like paying attention to the briefing, the safety exit, counting the number of seats between your seat and the exit, so that if you are in a situation where you have smoke in the cabin, the lights are out or it’s a bit chaotic, you already took the time to figure out your surroundings. Being informed and aware, I believe, contributes to the confidence of people who fly.
Personally, when I travel, I am more interested in the track record for delays. It really would not occur to me to check on the carrier’s equipment and the safety record of the equipment. It is, however, absolutely a good idea to check on the safety of small airlines and airlines in developing countries if you're traveling there. One of the things people going on safari, for example, may not always know is that safety regulations in other countries aren’t necessarily what we take for granted here. There are 80 different commercial carriers in Africa, so you’ve got a lot of variance there. Another thing I think is important is to check on a country’s safety rating from the FAA. Most of the airports we all fly into are safe and have been reviewed and audited by the FAA, so there has been a third party scrutiny about the way they operate and do business, and even the regulatory requirements that they have to adhere to.
MORE: Are American airlines safer than international airlines?
MB: It depends on the country and the track record of the carrier. It really would be wrong to say that U.S. airlines are safer. I don’t think you would see more than a mirco difference with many countries.
MORE: Are smaller planes less safe than large ones?
MB: There is a difference in the track record between general aviation and commercial aviation. In general aviation, you lump in people who own their own planes, who sometimes don’t fly very often or who are sometimes less experienced. So, with that whole universe, yes, there is considerable difference and there’s a lot of effort that goes into trying to get people who fly their own planes to be very, very, very rigorous about training and flight hours and all of that.
When it comes to charter service, which was the issue for the Mexican flight that just went down with the singer [Jenni Rivera] on it, there’s a difference in the track record for those charters. There is a difference in their ability to hire seasoned pilots—often pilots for small charters will have fewer flight hours. Now, I’m not talking about NetJets or some of the majors, but [safety concerns and pilot experience] are certainly worth asking and inquiring about.
MORE: So it’s more a pilot issue than mechanical issue?
MB: Over 70 percent of all aviation accidents are pilot error, so it’s the human factor that gets you much more than the technology or the equipment.
MORE: What do the stats say on pilots—young v. old, or male v. female?
MB: I’m not aware of any significant differences in terms of safety records on the older/younger, and certainly not male/female. The number of flight hours of experience is something you could correlate to age, and experience matters, there’s no question about it. But remember, a number of younger pilots are also people coming out of the military who have had rigorous, rigorous flight training and may have flown extensively, in circumstances that really hone your flying skills. So, I really wouldn’t put it on an age thing.
MORE: Has flying become safer since 9/11?
MB: If you’re using the word “safer” to include something that is a terrorist act, I do think so. There have been practically no instances of security issues with U.S. flights since 9/11. The couple that we all know about, the shoe bomber or the Christmas Day underwear bomber, for example, were coming from abroad. I do think the kind of rigorous screening that has been instituted by TSA contributes to our overall security in traveling.
MORE: Do you think all the security screening—taking off our shoes, for example—really makes air travel safer?
MB: Yes, I do. When I was at FAA, I was very much aware of the information that came from the intelligence community and the way TSA was using technology and screening tactics. These days, I’m no more informed than the average flyer, but I do believe they have had very valid reasons for making the requirements they now do and I think they have also tried, over time, to look at the demographics of who is flying. Now young children and much older people don’t have to take their shoes off or their coats off, and they have made accommodations. As the screening gets better and better, I think it will be less and less intrusive.
MORE: What are some ways to get to your gate without a lot of stress?
MB: If you’re trying to make the process as hassle-free as possible, remember to pack sensibly in terms of your carry-on. You can leave the smaller iPad-type computers in your carry-on, and usually a lot of us are carrying chargers and all of that. Pack them so that the chargers and the cords are not all wadded around everything and balled up and hard to see. There are sensible ways to make sure you’re not one of those people who is going to be pulled over and have everything taken out of your bag. Unfortunately, don’t wrap the Christmas presents, because they may very well get unwrapped and that’s a big hassle for everybody.
MORE: In the future, we may see pilot-less flights. Could those be even safer if pilot error is so often to blame for accidents?
MB: There is a tremendous amount of dated information that says that unmanned and semi-autonomous aircraft are very safe. But I don’t think the technology is there yet to have that kind of solid assurance. Most of this [sort of flying] is being done by aircraft that are flown in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, and here, but in very controlled circumstances. Trying to integrate those flights with all the other flights—we haven’t gotten there yet. Within the next 10 years, there is going to be a brand new system called NextGen, which is moving us from flights that are controlled by radar—controlling flights by radio, voice communication to cockpit—to flights that are part of a satellite-based and digital communication system that is highly precise, much safer and, frankly, is going to be more efficient. We will not be experiencing the kinds of delays and issues we have in today’s system.
MORE: There have been huge technology improvements in aircraft.
MB: New aircraft right now are flying computers. When you look at the Boeing Dreamliner, the 787, it has a tremendous amount of technology built in and capabilities that are just inherent to the safety of the aircraft itself. It’s only one more step to go to where you really are flying the plane almost entirely on autopilot. There are all sorts of advances that are coming into play that would essentially have the cockpit shared by a pilot and an autonomous system. I think you’re going to see those kinds of changes coming much more quickly than looking in the cockpit and seeing some version of R2D2.
MORE: Is there any flight you wouldn’t want to take yourself?
MB: I love to fly. I’ve flown experimental aircraft and I’ve flown an F16. But if I am flying in a developinbg nation, I would check before booking a flight on an airline or charter service I never heard of. That is were I tend to be a little more careful, but otherwise, no.
MORE: What's next in aviation?
MB: Next year, you’re going to see Virgin Galactic begin to fly passengers—as they term it, private astronauts—to a height that puts you weightless, and there’s a whole long queue of people who have paid $200,000 a ticket to do it. To my mind, that’s great; I like that this is all pushing into a new area of flight and, really, the ability for a private citizen to access space. But that isn’t transportation; that falls into adventure sport and that’s a different category. I haven’t put my money down yet, I will tell you. But if I had an extra $200,000 lying around, I might.
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