Flying Is Weird Right Now

Flying Is Weird Right Now
Flying Is Weird Right Now

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Produced by ElevenLabs and News Over Audio (NOA) using AI narration.

Somewhere over Colorado this weekend, while I sat in seat 21F, my plane began to buck, jostle, and rattle. Within seconds, the seat-belt indicator dinged as the pilot asked flight attendants to return to their seats. We were experiencing what I, a frequent flier, might describe as “intermediate turbulence”—a sustained parade of midair bumps that can be uncomfortable but by no means terrifying.

Generally, I do not fear hurtling through the sky at 500 miles per hour, but at this moment I felt an unusual pang of uncertainty. The little informational card poking out of the seat-back pocket in front of me started to look ominous—the words Boeing 737-900 positively glared at me as the cabin shook. A few minutes later, once we’d found calm air, I realized that a steady drumbeat of unsettling aviation stories had so thoroughly permeated my news-consumption algorithms that I had developed a phobia of sorts.

More than 100,000 flights take off every day without issue, which means that incidents are treated as newsworthy anomalies. But it sure feels like there have been quite a few anomalies lately. In January, a Japanese coast-guard plane and a Japan Airlines plane collided on the runway, erupting in flames; a few days later, a door blew out on an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 jet shortly after takeoff. Then, in just the past few weeks:

  • A United Airlines flight in Houston heading to its gate rolled off the runway and into the grass.
  • Another United flight, en route from Houston to Fort Myers, Florida, made an emergency landing after flames started shooting out of one of its engines.
  • Yet another United flight was forced to make an emergency landing when a tire fell off the plane moments after takeoff.
  • Still another United flight, this one heading from San Francisco to Mexico, made an emergency landing due to a hydraulic-system failure.
  • The National Transportation Safety Board announced that it was investigating a February United flight that had potentially faulty rudder pedals.
  • Roughly 50 passengers were injured in New Zealand when pilots lost control of a Boeing plane and it plummeted suddenly.
  • A post-landing inspection revealed that an external panel was missing from a Boeing 737-800 plane that had landed in Oregon this past Friday.

United released a statement to passengers suggesting the incidents on its flights were unrelated but also “reminders of the importance of safety.” In that same statement, Scott Kirby, the company’s CEO, said that the incidents “have our attention and have sharpened our focus.”

This is only a partial list of the year’s aeronautical mishaps, which are prodigious: Consider investigations into Alaska Airlines that revealed numerous doors with loose bolts, the Airbus grounded for a faulty door light, or the Delta Boeing whose nose wheel popped off and “rolled down” a hill as the flight prepared to take off.

Many people are wondering: What is going on with airplanes? In January, the booking site Kayak reported that it had seen “a 15-fold increase” in the use of its aircraft filter for Boeing 737 Max planes, suggesting that anxious travelers booking flights were excluding them from their searches. In response to the palpable audience interest, there’s been an uptick in media interest in aviation stories.

Meanwhile, poking fun at Boeing—whose standards and corporate culture have understandably come under scrutiny in the past few years after it was charged with fraud and agreed to pay $2.5 billion in settlements—has become a meme, a way to nervously laugh at the cavalcade of bad news and to gesture at the frustration over corporate greed that seems to put overcharged air travelers at risk. (Boeing responded to the Alaska Airlines door incident by acknowledging that the company “is accountable for what happened,” and pledged to make internal changes. And last week, Executive Vice President Stan Deal sent a message to employees outlining steps the company is taking to improve its planes’ safety and quality, including adding new “layers” of inspection to its manufacturing processes.)

Despite all of this, flying has, in a historical sense at least, never been safer. A statistician at MIT has found that, globally, the odds of a passenger dying on a flight from 2018 to 2022 were 38 times lower than they were 50 years earlier. The National Safety Council found in 2021 that, over the course of a person’s life, the odds of dying as an aircraft passenger in the U.S. “were too small to even calculate.” One aviation-safety consultant recently told NBC News, “There’s not anything unusual about the recent spate of incidents—these kinds of things happen every day in the industry.” A separate industry analyst told Slate in February, “Flying is literally safer than sitting on the ground … I don’t know how I can stress that enough.” That we know so much about every little failure and close call in the skies is, in part, because the system is so thorough and so safe.

So what’s really going on? I suspect it’s a confluence of two distinct factors. The first is that although air safety is getting markedly better over time, the experience of flying is arguably worse than ever. The pandemic had a cascading effect on the business of air travel. One estimate suggests that in the past four years, roughly 10,000 pilots have left the commercial airline industry, as many airlines offered early retirement to employees during the shutdown and pre-vaccine periods, when fewer people were traveling. There are also shortages of mechanics and air traffic controllers.

All of that is now coupled with an increase in passenger volume: In 2023, flight demand crept back up to near pre-pandemic levels, and staffing has not caught up. It is also an especially expensive time to fly. Pile on unruly passengers, system outages, baggage fees, carry-on restrictions, meager drink and snack offerings, and the trials and tribulations of merely coexisting with other travelers who insist on lining up at the gate 72 hours before their zone boards and you have a perfectly combustible situation. Air travel is an impressive daily symphony of logistics, engineering, and physics. It’s also a total grind.

Trust in Boeing declined in recent months, according to consumer surveys, even if consumers still trust the airline industry as a whole. It makes sense that the distrust in Boeing would bleed outward. All conspiracy theories are rooted in some aspect of personal experience, and plenty of information exists out there to confirm one’s deepest suspicions: The New York Times described Boeing’s past safety issues as “capitalism gone awry” in 2020, and there is plenty of evidence that the company culture hasn’t changed enough since then. At least two aviation experts (one a former Boeing employee) have publicly stated their concerns about flying in certain Boeing planes. It doesn’t help that Boeing is the subject of an NTSB investigation and is struggling to present the requested evidence in the Alaska door case, or that earlier this month a Boeing whistleblower died by suicide.

Then there is the second factor: vibes. Existing online means getting exposed to so much information that it has become quite easy to hear about individual problems, but incredibly difficult to determine their overall scale or relevance. On TikTok, you might be exposed to entire genres of ominous flight videos: “Flight Attendant Horror,’” “Scary Sounding Planes,” “The Scariest Plane.” Even those who are not specifically mainlining these clips may suffer from an algorithmic selection bias: the more interest a person has in the recent plane malfunctions, the more likely that person might be to see more stories and commentary about planes in general. Meanwhile, an uptick in interest in stories about airline mishaps can lead to an increase in coverage of airline mishaps, which has the effect of making more routine issues feel like they’re piling up. Some of that reporting can be downright sensational, and news organizations are now also covering incidents they would have previously ignored.

This distortion—between public perception of an issue (planes are getting less safe!) and the more boring reality (they’re actually very safe)—is exacerbated by the intensity and density of information. It is a modern experience to stumble upon a meme, theory, or narrative and then see it in all of your feeds. Similarly, platforms make it easier for complex, disparate stories to collapse into simpler ways of seeing the world. Air safety slots nicely into this framework and, given the sterling record of the industry, a couple of loose or missing screws on a Boeing jet begins to feel both like a systemic failure and proof of something bigger: a kind of societal decay at the hands of increasing shareholder value.

These are feelings, vibes. They aren’t always accurate, but often that doesn’t matter because they’re so deeply felt. If that word—vibes—feels more prevalent in the lexicon in recent years, perhaps it is because more weird, hard-to-interpret information is available, pushing people toward trusting their gut feelings. Today’s air-travel anxiety sits at the intersection of these vibes, anecdotes, legitimate and troubling news reports, and the algorithmic distortion of the internet, creating a distinctly modern feeling of a large, looming problem, the exact contours of which are difficult to discern.

The vibes are off—this much we know for certain. Everything else is up for debate.

Charlie Warzel is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of its newsletter Galaxy Brain, about technology, media, and big ideas. He can be reached via email.


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