Most American adults believe that air travel is generally safe in the US, despite some doubts about whether planes are being properly maintained and remain free of structural problems.
About 7 in 10 American adults say airplanes are a “very” or “somewhat” safe method of travel, according to a new poll by Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Even with that high level of confidence, only about 2 in 10 American adults are “very” confident that airplanes are being properly maintained or that they are safe from structural defects. The other half have a “moderate” belief that this is the case.
The survey was then administered an accident on January 5 in which a panel exploded on an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 16,000 feet (4,900 meters) over Oregon, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the plane. It led to the grounding of more than 140 planes and raised questions about Boeing’s ongoing production problems and the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to address them.
American adults have more confidence in the ability of airline pilots and air traffic controllers to maintain air safety than in commercial airlines, aircraft manufacturers, or the federal government agencies charged with it. Most have at least a “moderate” amount of confidence that each is ensuring safety.
Some with a fear of flying expressed even more concern because of the Alaska Airlines incident.
“I don’t like to fly. It’s so unnatural — we’re in a metal tube flying through the air,” said Margaret Burke of Pensacola, Florida, who read accounts of the plane incident, which resulted in no serious injuries. “The fact that people fly safely every day seems like a miracle to me.”
Despite her fears, Burke will hop on a plane for a trip to California this spring because of the speed and convenience of air travel.
“I have a 3-year-old and I can’t put him in a car seat for three days straight, that’s just unfair,” she said.
Even with maintenance concerns, American adults have a higher level of confidence that airline pilots and air traffic controllers are well trained and engaged in proper safety procedures. Just under half – 45% – have “a lot” of confidence in pilot training, while 38% say so about air traffic controllers.
About a quarter of US adults have a high level of confidence that air travel is safe from terrorist attacks, or that government agencies have adopted the necessary safety regulations. Even with the change, most American adults have at least “a moderate amount” of confidence that airplanes are safe, pilots are well trained and regulations are adequate.
That may be because flying is still much safer than driving and also safer than rail travel on a per-mile basis, according to the US. Department of Transport figures.
Airline officials and aviation regulators want to point out that there hasn’t been a fatal crash of a US airliner since 2009, although in 2018 a passenger died on a Southwest flight after an engine explosion and in the past year there has been a sharp increase in close calls being investigated by federal officials.
Sherry Kohn, a retired English literature teacher in Pennsylvania, thinks flying is generally safe — “I’d get on an airplane” — but she’s among those who are moderately confident that planes are manufactured safely.
“Nobody’s going to put out something that’s going to kill people, I don’t think,” she said, “but Boeing has had a history of problems.”
Kohn also worries about maintenance.
“They recycle these planes so quickly,” she said. “He goes down, someone comes in and vacuums. I don’t know that they are checking (the planes) carefully enough.”
About a quarter of American adults say they travel by plane at least a few times a year when traveling long distances.
Frequent fliers are more likely than infrequent fliers to have high confidence in all categories: that airplanes are being properly maintained, that they are safe from structural defects, that air traffic controllers are well trained, that pilots are well-trained, that government agencies have adopted the necessary safety regulations, and that it is safe from terrorist acts.
Randi Niedfeldt, a retired physician assistant in Wisconsin, has a lot of faith in the planes, despite the recent incidents. Her husband is a recreational pilot and controls the type of aircraft they fly, but they don’t shy away from any specific make or model.
“How many major plane crashes have you heard of?” she asked. “When they do happen, they are catastrophic, but they don’t happen very often for the amount of flights that are done.”
The poll of 1,152 adults was conducted from January 25-29, 2024, using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak panel, which is designed to be representative of the US population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.0 percentage points.