The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) decision to ground Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 passenger jet in the wake of two crashes has raised questions about the safety of today’s airplane technology and led to some exaggerated reactions. “Can pilots trust Boeing with any of its other [planes]?” demanded one retired pilot on CNN. A more balanced assessment was offered by Atlantic journalist James Fallows. “The astonishingly good safety record of the world’s commercial air-travel system,” he suggests, “has earned most of the system’s members the benefit of the doubt on safety judgments.” Quoting another pilot, Fallows concludes that “airline accidents have become so rare I’m not sure what is still acceptable to the flying public.”
The safety of modern airline travel is indeed a wonder. For the near-decade between February 2009 and April 2018, there wasn’t a single fatality on a commercial flight in the United States. Considering that during that time, Americans flew something on the order of sixty million miles per month—akin to flying to the moon and back every day for four years—that’s an astonishing degree of safety. . . .