The airline industry has had its setbacks in the past few years, and also a pretty turbulent (uh oh) economic history. When the general public thinks of the aviation industry, they think of airlines. Most people have no problem entrusting their lives to some people they will never meet on a highly sophisticated piece of machinery run on a tight schedule flying at altitudes way outside of any frame of reference they might have. But then there are those that do have a problem with flying.
Since the terrorist attacks on the U.S. in 2001, the already important security aspect of airline travel became much more in the public eye. I'd like to talk about how this has affected the industry, and exactly what kind of risks the public should be aware of. The fact is there are many alternative measures terrorists could take. The fact that they used airliners in these prominent attacks merely allowed the media (always horrifically inaccurate with and apathetic to aviation) to build aviation up in the public eye as some kind of terrible security hole.
I'd better explain my background to put all this in some context. I am a commercial aviation major at the University of North Dakota. This is a degree program for a B.S. in aerospace sciences. This basically means I have been studying the industry for the past three years. It does not mean I am an expert, but I believe I am much more informed than John Q. Public about aviation. I have been a pilot for many years, and come from a deeply aviation-oriented family. I hold a commercial pilot's certificate for multi-engine aircraft, with an instrument rating, and am currently training to become a flight instructor. My first rating was for gliders, which I started flying when I was 14 and I got my rating when I was 16. I would highly recommend that, its a fun and very cheap way to fly.
The airline industry has been highly regulated, with good reason, throughout its history. In 1978, it was greatly deregulated, in the sense that government control was given up and the airline industry was then "exposed to market forces" like any normal industry. Deregulation is explained in detail here, but the gist of it is airlines were free to set their own fares and routes. They did not like this. They now had to compete with other airlines, and this competition was fierce. Prices for tickets came down, but in order for the airlines to afford this, all the wonderful amenities and services they once offered had to be given up. You used to always get a full service meal, drinks, etc., sit in basically first class, and be attended to every moment of the flight by an army of attractive stewardesses. At least that's my impression, go ask your granddad about it for a more accurate account.
Granted there are still some luxury oriented airlines, but today we see an industry where most travelers buy based on ticket price, and an airline seat is more of a commodity. The most competitive airlines are those that offer low fares but maintain a pleasant flying experience with what sparse amenities they offer, like Southwest, AirTran, and many others. Regional airlines, due largely to technological advances in "smaller" aircraft that now largely use turbine engines, are growing faster than many if not all of the major airlines.
The airlines' success depends very heavily on the economy. When the economy suffers, airlines suffer. They have always struggled to be profitable, but especially after September 11th, they have had a particularly hard time. Many long-standing majors have either folded or declared bankruptcy. This is augmented by the fact that new security concerns have also negatively impacted the industry.
As far as safety goes, airlines have always had a fairly high level of safety compared to other modes of transportation, and into the 70's and beyond especially, safety has been incredibly high. Numbers of accidents each year has greatly declined, and major causes of accidents have generally shifted from equipment failures to pilot error. The equipment is incredibly safe these days, but as in anything, it is very hard to work out the human error aspect. If you want to see some numbers, look here.
Transport category aircraft are safe beyond belief. This fact escapes a lot of people I have talked to, who are under the impression that airliners are under the same kind of maintenance program as, say, the city bus, or something. First of all, the design of any airplane that will carry passengers has to go through a process that can take years before the manufacturer can even build any.
The design itself incorporates a bewildering array of safety features. These aircraft are very, very strong. They can withstand unbelievable stress over many years of service. They are designed to have more power than necessary for normal operation, and can climb out after an engine fails after takeoff, even with a full load. This is a regulatory requirement. The engines themselves are extremely reliable and put through some pretty crazy testing, like throwing sheets of ice and other things through a test engine.
Every vital system on the aircraft has at least one backup. In most cases there are more than one. Transport aircraft have equipment to deal with ice that can form on the wings and other parts of the aircraft. There are many sources of navigation available. There is weather radar, terrain and traffic avoidance equipment, and plenty of other safety equipment on board. It is also important to note that there is always at least a second pilot, the first officer, and on some older aircraft, a flight engineer too, on board actively participating in the flight.
Just a side note I'd like to add to that is that people seem to think that if the airplane loses an engine, as in if it quits for whatever reason, it is a major problem and the airplane is probably going to crash. This is not the case. The passengers would probably hardly notice if an engine quit, besides the change in sound. If all the engines were to quit, which is very unlikely, the airplane is still not going to crash. There is a possibility it will have to make an off-airport landing, which can be done safely, but when you are at 35,000 feet you have a lot of time and a lot of options. The airplane is not going to drop out of the sky.
Maintenance of transport airplanes is strictly regulated. In my view and that of the regulatory body, the FAA, airlines do comply with these regulations. The NTSB, National Transportation Safety Board, is an independent agency charged with investigating transportation accidents, including aircraft ones. (See their site for more accident information.) Whenever there is an airline accident, they spend a tremendous amount of time (and our money) to determine exactly what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. The result is that the same problem will rarely cause two accidents.
But they don't just wait for something really bad to happen before doing something. There are many programs to identify areas of safety risk so that they can be caught before they cause an accident. The industry is constantly working on safety issues, and changing its training and operation to optimize safety.
To become a pilot, you have to go through quite a lot. I am at the very beginning of that process. I think people generally understand this, so I won't go into too much detail, but suffice to say the training, and retraining for proficiency involved makes sure there are nothing but good pilots out there and that they stay good pilots.
All this basically adds up to the proven fact that flying on an airplane is safer by at least an order of magnitude than driving your car to the airport. So why do we hear about air crashes all the time? Well, how many car accidents are there every day? Quite a few in every population center, many fatal. It is such a common occurrence, however, that even in cases where people die, the media does not find them important enough to cover. When an airliner crashes, it is a much rarer thing. This makes it a media event. Of course, the potential for many more people to be injured or die in one incident is there, but overall, many fewer people are injured or die in aircraft accidents each year than die in automobile accidents. This only serves to increase media attention on these cases. What magnifies this and gives people the idea that flying is not safe, however, is the media's complete ignorance and total unwillingness to actually learn the facts. Why is that? Well, the general public is kind of the same way, and the media tells you what you want to hear so you'll like it.
An airplane crashed. Someone's immediate reaction might be, "airliners are unsafe, they break so easily." I don't know if that is an actual sentiment, but I believe it is a good example of one. What they are looking for on the news is something to justify that view, so the news says, "this crash was probably due to a structural failure because airplanes are susceptible to damage," or some such thing. The viewer is satisfied, and he tells his friends "I told you!" I know this is a great generalization, but I believe it is representative of the kinds of things I have heard, and how the news seems to approach all subjects.
Basically I want to say the media has a terrible effect on the public's knowledge and opinion of aviation.
Honestly I am not incredibly familiar with the details of security. I do know, however, that even before September 11th, security was already very high due in major part to the hijackings that occurred in the 1970's and also to other terrorist attacks. It is only that much higher now. Despite all the negative press about the effectiveness of security, it is actually quite effective. There is also only so much you can do. There has to be a compromise between efficient air travel and really long security lines for complicated security checks. People will always find a way to do bad things. This is not to say "let it happen," but to say that we have to choose between being able to conveniently fly to where we'd like, and not being able to do so. There are other industries with similar unavoidable but minimizable vulnerabilities; it is unfortunate that terrorists decided to choose the one they did.
Efficient airline transportation is vital to the economy for many reasons. This is why the government has such an interest in it. People like to complain about it, but the fact is that it will continue to be around. The form it takes, though, may change in the upcoming decades.
The current system is kind of like a subway system. There are trains that come at a certain time, and you can pick which one but you can't pick the time. You have to get to the station, because the train does not go to your house, and you have to get off at a station that is close, but not at, your final destination. You probably have to stop at interim stops that have little to do with your final destination. Airliners are much like this. Most air travel occurs between large cities in mid-size aircraft.
As I mentioned before, smaller regional air carriers are growing. The trend, at least domestically, is to smaller aircraft operating between mid-sized cities through a larger city, which is a hub, but a smaller hub than in the past.
This is despite the fact that Boeing continues to sell huge aircraft for long hauls, usually internationally, and that Airbus is going to start building the A380 double-decker jumbo jet in the next few years, which may or may not be a good idea (that's an ongoing debate.) Domestically, though, some people envision a system (far in the future) that would correlate to taxi service. Air taxi services do exist in this country, but not to a large extent, using existing 4-10 seat (around that) aircraft.
The new Eclipse 500 is a small, 6 seat super-efficient jet that would be produced in fleets to provide point to point service on demand. While not a proven concept, it is one idea that is out there. Would it not be great to drive to the nearest airport, often within 15 minutes of most people's homes, which no longer would have to be a huge airport, and for the price of an airline ticket, hop in a small airplane with just your family and perhaps a business traveler or two, and fly directly to the airport nearest your final destination? This could be the future of air travel, or something like it, with a more distributed system of point-to-point travel. There are many challenges to get to a system like that, so who knows.
Which brings us to general aviation. There are a couple of different sets of flying rules out there, and basically anyone not flying under the airliner regulations or is in the military is participating in general aviation. There is a lot more of this than people realize, and it is a much larger part of the economy that most people realize. If these Eclipse jets or something like it go into service, the interesting thing is, because of their size, they would most likely be operated in the general aviation realm.
This doesn't mean they won't be safe. The regulations still call for strict maintenance, etc. It will just mean that general aviation will grow substantially. The airports these airplanes fly into will be GA airports, not big ones. It will be interesting to see.
What does GA do for us right now? Besides corporate jets, air taxi operations, and other passenger carrying operations, GA involves carrying cargo, surveying land, checking pipelines, and many other things. Police helicopters, air ambulances, and fire-fighting aircraft are GA. A growing number of people are in flight training (that's me). Then theres people who fly airplanes for fun, or just to travel. A lot of people do this, and it is a great community. Regulations recently went into effect to allow people to fly very small, low powered aircraft unders certain provisions for recreation, and makes aviation much more accessible to everyone.
The future of GA is all about technology. Already in recent years, the avionics (instrumentation, navigation systems) have improved vastly, making operating and navigating an airplane (arguably) a lot less work. New airplane designs like the ones Cirrus builds have come onto the market. It is a time of significant change in a lot of ways.
In the future, it should be even easier. NASA has been working for a while on the SATS and AGATE programs, designed to allow high density small-aircraft transportation, and also easy navigation for everyone. It involves integrating the aircraft systems and air traffic control with computer automation. One of SATS' more visible features is the use of "highway in the sky" displays; basically on a display in the airplane or a heads-up display it will put boxes or gates for you to fly through. This and AGATE are meant to produce better small airplanes for use in transportation or just flying around. In my Eclipse example, SATS is probably similar to what it would end up using if the airplane were used in the way I described.
So that's basically what I'd like to see the public know about aviation. It bothers me that, like I said, people love to talk about it, and do not know much about it usually. People should be more willing to seek understanding of things when they are important, rather than making assumptions and trying to sound smart about it.
I see a lot of dedicated people in the industry. It has a way of weeding out safety risks, including people that cause them, and hard as it may be, I think the public needs to trust these people to do their job, because I know they will.
For more information, check out: How Safe is flying today? which I basically repeated a lot of, but he has written a more thorough piece on this topic, and done a really incredible job at it.
Also, be a pilot! It is great fun!