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What Accounts For Commercial Airlines' Safest Year In History


Here's some good news about the year that just ended. 2017 was the safest year ever for airline passengers. Not one person died in a passenger jet according to the Aviation Safety Network. Alan Levin is a reporter who covers aviation for Bloomberg. Welcome.


SHAPIRO: What accounts for this being the safest year ever?

LEVIN: I think it's fair to say this trend has a thousand fathers. It's a bunch of technical improvements in airplanes. It's revolutionary changes in training, particularly of pilots but really of everybody involved in the aviation system. It's kind of an unprecedented cooperation also between airlines, the aviation regulators and the aviation accident investigators as well.

SHAPIRO: It's pretty striking that we're not just talking about the United States or highly developed countries, but this also includes the developing world and places where you think there may be fewer safeguards for airplane passengers.

LEVIN: That's true. You know, what's really interesting is there are private nonprofits like a group called the Flight Safety Foundation as well as the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and others who've devoted an enormous amount of energy to places like Africa. A lot of what they've tried to do is just to create more mature government systems. If you're afraid that you're going to go to jail for committing an error, you're never going to report the error. And then the folks who are worried about safety are never going to know that such errors are occurring. So they want to have an open - an honest system.

SHAPIRO: You said part of this is attributable to improvements in training, regulation, technology. Can you tell us a little bit more about some of the things that you think were most responsible?

LEVIN: You know, a year and a half ago, I did a profile of one of the most fascinating guys. His name is Don Bateman. He invented a device that warns pilots when they're about to hit the ground unknowingly. And it's not intuitive, but that was by far the biggest killer in the '60s, '70s and even into the '80s.

SHAPIRO: Do you mean because, like, mountains were shrouded in fog - things like that?

LEVIN: Exactly. You know, pilots have a host of devices onboard that theoretically should keep them away from mountains or other obstructions, but it doesn't always work. It's pretty complicated. And this was this super intuitive system that when you got too low, it just said pull up; pull up in very stern language.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

LEVIN: And it has essentially wiped out that class of accident.


LEVIN: There were thousands of people who died in the '60s as a result of that. And if you project the - we have far greater flights. If that accident rate had stayed the same, you'd have tens of thousands people dying a year today. What's interesting is it's on every plane that goes to every country in the world.


LEVIN: In other words, it's helped enormously in the U.S. and Europe and elsewhere but also in those other countries.

SHAPIRO: President Trump took credit for this improvement. In a tweet, he said, since taking office, I have been very strict on commercial aviation. Good news - it was just reported that there were zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record. Do a little fact check for us. Did President Trump do anything that could be responsible for this improvement?

LEVIN: Oh, boy, let me just say this. Any time you have a good record like this, the chief executive under the rules of our society is allowed to take credit for it. But I am hard pressed to find any specific new regulations that he's imposed involving aviation safety that would've caused this.

SHAPIRO: Alan Levin covers the aviation industry for Bloomberg. Thanks so much.

LEVIN: Oh, my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUJO'S "MEDICAL FLY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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