Stephen DUBNER: Tell me about a frightening incident you’ve had as a pilot.
Adam UHAN: Okay, I’m going to apologize to my mom and my wife on this one.
UHAN: I had a smoke-and-fumes emergency when I was departing Guam, and we thought our airplane was on fire. And when you have an internal fire, you have, uh, not a lot of time. So we turned around, we had to put the airplane on the ground very quickly, we had a lot of gas on board. I was in charge that day, even though the other pilot was even more senior and experienced than I was. But I said, “Okay, I’m going to do these tasks. You’re going to do these tasks.” And we had separated mentally to go take care of what we needed to take care of to get that airplane back on the ground as fast as we could. And when we reconvened, all things were done. We had our oxygen masks on. We landed the airplane safely, and egressed the aircraft.
DUBNER: How scared were you?
UHAN: At the time? You’re not scared. Your training kicks in. You just start turning into an automaton, and doing what you know to do correctly.
That is Adam Uhan. Today, he’s a pilot for a major U.S. airline. But the emergency he described was some years ago, during an Air Force flight — it was a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, heading out to refuel a bomber midair over the Pacific Ocean. That’s why his plane had so much gas on board. Uhan joined the Air Force in 2001, and he’s still in the National Guard, training other pilots.
UHAN: The first time I said that I was going to be a pilot in the United States Air Force was when I was in first grade. We were walking home from school, and the three other little guys with me said, “Yeah, no, you can’t do that. That’s only for, like, superheroes.”
I asked Uhan if he’d ever had a frightening incident as an airline pilot.
UHAN: So in the airlines, I’ve never had a real issue that I would call frightening. The safety records are true. Go ahead and read the N.T.S.B. reports — you’re going to be blown away at how few incidents there truly are.
This is correct. According to the N.T.S.B., or National Transportation Safety Board, which “investigates every civil aviation accident in the U.S.,” since 2010, there have been only two fatal accidents involving large U.S. carriers. Two! That’s out of more than 100 million flights.
UHAN: It’s a miracle. It’s a miracle that we can push enough thrust out of the back of this airplane to make enough air go over the wings to then make that airplane rise into the air and fly smoothly, safely to a destination, and then lower it by controlling control surfaces and making them move in certain ways, that we can bring the airplane down at an exact speed to touchdown and then take you to your gate.
Today on Freakonomics Radio: it wasn’t always this way.
Ed BASTIAN: If you go back 30 or 40 years, air crashes were not uncommon.
BASTIAN: It’s safer than riding a bike, safer than driving a car, safer than crossing a street.
And what can the rest of us — the people driving cars, especially — what can we learn from the people who fly planes?
Billy NOLEN: In commercial aviation, we train ad nauseam.
There are, of course, other things that can go wrong.
Conor MCGILL: They just made an announcement asking for a medical professional.
And: we do a little safety training of our own.
Katie TRUETT: Release seat belts, leave everything. Release seat belts, leave everything.
DUBNER: Can I just say, I’m flipping out right now even though I know I’m in a simulator.
* * *
This is the second episode in our series “Freakonomics Radio Takes to the Skies.” Early on, we deputized our listeners to make audio diaries of their recent airline trips. So here’s a listener named Alex Poulsen, traveling with his infant son.
Alex POULSEN: Okay, so we got him all wrapped up in a blanket — rocking him now, pacifier in. Hopefully, we can get him to sleep.
We heard from Faye Walsh Drouillard, whose concern was other people’s kids.
Faye WALSH DROUILLARD: There are three children sitting behind me under the age of 10 with no parent nearby, at least that I can tell. And I have been kicked a few times.
And we heard from a listener named Charlie Wood, who was just enjoying the ride.
Charlie WOOD: The flight attendant said it’s going to be a bumpy arrival. But the way I look at it, turbulence is kind of like a free roller coaster.
We received hours and hours of audio diaries, covering every phase of the air-travel experience. People were concerned about all sorts of things: tight connections and tight seats, lost baggage, noisy passengers, smelly food. But there was one concern that not a single person mentioned: getting in a crash. And that makes sense. Last year, there was only one fatal crash in the world that involved a large commercial jetliner — a China Eastern flight that killed all 132 people on board; and that crash is thought to have been caused by a suicidal pilot. Some other crashes involving smaller aircrafts brought the global total of people killed aboard commercial carriers to 174. That’s for the entire year. That same number of people die in car crashes every day-and-a-half in the U.S. alone. Last year, there were zero deaths in the U.S. on regularly scheduled commercial flights. Private air travel is riskier: there, around 300 people die each year in the U.S. Still, the overall progress in air safety is almost hard to fathom. So, how did it happen?
NOLEN: Yes. You know, I’ll knock on wood here, but it’s really, pardon the pun — it hasn’t been by accident.
That is Billy Nolen.
NOLEN: And I am the acting administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration.
The F.A.A. regulates just about every aspect of civilian aviation — airports and airlines, air traffic control, and the certification of pilots and aircraft.
NOLEN: If you look back at the early nineties, while the rate was fairly low, we could still see more accidents than we wanted. So we set about to create a framework, which was designed to bring together the regulator and the airlines to openly share safety data and trending information. So we set out to reduce what we call the rate of fatal accidents by 80 percent over ten years. We wind up exceeding that, reducing it by 83 percent from 1997 to 2007. And in 2007, we realized we wanted to expand that even more. We wanted to continue to reduce that fatality risk by 50 percent.
In the 1970s, there was 1 death for every 350,000 passengers who took a commercial flight anywhere in the world. By the 1990s, that number was 1 death for every 1.3 million passengers. And today, it’s roughly 1 in 8 million.
NOLEN: It is a great and an enviable safety record, but we will never claim victory, right? It’s one that we are forever innovating, we’re forever iterating to say what’s next.
For all the investment in safety training — which we’ll get into later — Nolan says that technology has helped, a lot.
NOLEN: You look at the amount of data coming off a modern jetliner. Let’s take a Boeing 787 — that’s got nearly a half a terabyte of data coming off of it per flight. Are there trends that we’re seeing that we can have a very early indication of something that we need to address? When you think about sensors, things like engine-health monitoring, all those can be early warning or early indicators that you might need to do some sort of maintenance. Our goal is to be able to share data openly and to be able to voluntarily report where we think there are issues out there, so that we can address those in an almost real-time manner.
Ed BASTIAN: Our industry is such that with our regulator, when we see something that looks odd, we want them to know.
That is Ed Bastian the C.E.O. of Delta Air Lines, one of the biggest airlines in the world. And when a Delta pilot, for instance, does see something a bit odd—
BASTIAN: They report it, whether it was due to their judgment or their decision or not. It’s a program that our employees all know. As long as they report something they see as an anomaly, they are held harmless. As to whether they made a mistake, or there was a judgment error, they may wind up having to go learn from what they did and maybe take a class or receive some additional training. But we want everyone to report anything that they see.
Bastian says this sort of program has been a key driver of airline safety.
BASTIAN: If you go back 30 or 40 years, air crashes were not uncommon. It was something the industry spent an enormous amount of time collaborating together, sharing information, sharing learnings, working closely with the F.A.A. to understand best practices and how we could have an open book with our regulator.
This close relationship between regulators and industry plainly has benefits, but it can be complicated. Two of the worst crashes in recent years — one in Indonesia, the other in Ethiopia — involved a brand-new airplane, the 737 MAX made by Boeing, the big U.S. airplane manufacturer. The F.A.A. had certified the MAX as safe, but in both those crashes, the plane’s new automation system was found to be at fault. It has been suggested that the F.A.A.’s cozy relationship with Boeing led it to sign off on the automation system before it had been fully tested. Those two crashes killed 346 people. That said, airline travel has become the safest form of transportation in the world.
BASTIAN: It’s safer than riding a bike, safer than driving a car, safer than crossing a street.
DUBNER: So Ed, in a given year in the U.S., roughly 40,000 people die from traffic crashes. If you look at the global numbers, it’s more than a million people a year. And yet, to most people, an airplane seems a lot more dangerous than an automobile. Can you talk about that from the perspective of an airline C.E.O.?
BASTIAN: Well, safety is paramount. And we’re proud of that. You compare that to the auto industry — obviously, you have a lot more operators, so you’ve got a lot more variability. And the other thing that’s very different: you will not see airlines compete on safety. We will not say that we’re the safest airline in the sky. All of our airlines in this country are safe. However, autos for many years used to compete on safety. They used to say, “I’m the most reliable car in terms of safety” and other ratings. They don’t do it as much anymore. And that’s one thing they’ve learned from the airline industry, that safety is not something we should compete on — we should collaborate on.
DUBNER: Do you think that the average airline pilot is a safer automobile driver than the average automobile driver?
BASTIAN: Oh, I — that’s hard to know. I do know that our pilots also receive a tremendous amount of support in terms of technology from the aircraft itself. I’m sure they’re safer flying planes than they are driving cars.
We tried to find some data on whether airline pilots, when they’re driving cars, are safer or less-safe than the average driver. But we couldn’t. We asked Billy Nolen — acting F.A.A. boss and himself a former military and commercial pilot — if he’d seen any such data.
NOLEN: I don’t know of any. But if I could say one thing: one of the things we look for in pilots is that sense of perception. Now, I’m not going to suggest that every pilot has perfect situational awareness, but I can certainly assert that every commercial aviation pilot has an enhanced sense of awareness because you’re constantly thinking about: what are the threats that could impact my flight, from the time I depart to the time I land? Weather, birds, thunderstorms, traffic, terrain, all of those things that we are forever training to and we’re thinking about.
DUBNER: Do you find that that sense of observation and awareness are more natural or learned?
NOLEN: There’s a lot of assessment that pilots go through — spatially, physically, you go through all kind of testing. And over the arc of your career, you’re presented scenarios, to say, “How would you react? You’re flying over the Rocky Mountains, and what if you were to suddenly have a fire or where you were starting to have a rapid depressurization? Where would you go, what would you do?” In my helicopter days, I was always looking for someplace to land, because if something happened, your decisions were almost immediate, and you had to react. But much of that is learned. We sit down, and we talk about the man-machine interface, how we work together, because a lot happens. You know, on a flight deck, you see symptoms, you’ve got instruments, you say something is happening, but you’ve got a whole cabin behind you. So you’re receiving the stimuli all the time, and it’s your ability to synthesize that and say, “Is there a threat? Is there something that I need to address?” We do want you to have that heightened sense, so that muscle and that mental memory kicks in.
DUBNER: Describe for me, you as a pilot — whether it was military or commercial later — the hairiest or scariest moment or flight.
NOLEN: I was a helicopter pilot back in the day, and I was flying into and out of Panmunjom, so you’re right there on the line between South Korea and North Korea. I found that always to be interesting. That could be another story for another day.
DUBNER: Only military would say, “I found that to be ‘interesting.’”
NOLEN: But in commercial aviation, we train ad nauseam. So we try to say, “Okay, what could happen, what are the possibilities, what are the consequences? What is the greatest outcome?” So be it a fire, be it wind-shear microburst. We put people in the simulator — and I used to be a training captain myself — to the point, we throw the book at them, so that that muscle memory and that mental memory is there in terms of what to do. Obviously, you saw it expressed in the Miracle on the Hudson. That ability to instinctually know what it is I need to do in the moment, right? That all comes from training.
The “Miracle on the Hudson” that Nolen mentioned happened in 2009 on a U.S. Airways flight out of LaGuardia airport in New York. The plane, an Airbus A320 carrying 150 passengers, had just taken off when it hit a flock of birds and lost power in both engines. The pilots — captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and first officer Jeffrey Skiles — were able to glide the plane into position and land it safely in the Hudson River. Everyone survived. One N.T.S.B. member called it “the most successful ditching in aviation history.” Much was made of the fact that Sullenberger was a longtime Air Force pilot before moving into commercial.
UHAN: You don’t lift one weight one time and you’re the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It took him rep after rep after rep to do what he did. It takes a lot of reps to get good at these things. Well, the same thing is when you’re flying an airplane.
That, again, is Adam Uhan, another commercial pilot who used to fly military.
UHAN: Those simulators — we are thrown a lot of different problems, and we have to work together to get the problem done.
DUBNER: There just hasn’t been that much airline catastrophe in the past 15, 20 years. And it’s just been gradually getting safer and safer to the point where, gosh, I mean, I think it’s bizarrely safe. What would you say have been the key drivers of that improvement?
UHAN: If you go back to the twenties and the thirties, pilot was a sky god. They could figure anything out, right? Well, slowly but surely, they had to adjust to technological inputs, like the first autopilots that came online. Or the ability to use navigation — like, instrument navigation, not just looking out at a corn field and going, “Oh yeah, I think that’s the right way.” Why things just got safer is the evolution of this culture of saying, “Hey, technology can help us.”
I asked Uhan if being a pilot has made him a better car driver.
UHAN: Ha! My arrogant self would say yes. For me personally, I’m able to tap into that situational awareness and task-prioritization mindset that’s been beaten into me over 20 years of being a pilot. Like, I really — I have adopted that mentality.
So what would it take to bring some of the safety standards of airline travel to roadway travel? I went back to Billy Nolen for this. His F.A.A., by the way, is part of the Department of Transportation. In fact, it makes up around 80 percent of the Department of Transportation.
DUBNER: The airline industry has become remarkably safe, to the point where I would posit that the average person, when they get on a flight, they don’t even really think about safety anymore. They think about, my seat’s too small, the food is not good, and so on. So you could say that complaining is sort of a luxury of not having to worry so much about safety. If we look at automobile travel, however, we’ve made great strides over the decades, but not as great as one might like. And indeed there’s been a setback during the pandemic, and there are wrinkles like pedestrians now are dying at a higher rate in the last few years than in the past. I realize there are many, many, fewer miles flown than there are miles driven. Everybody is a driver, most of us are not pilots. But are there lessons to be drawn from aviation that can make driving safer?
NOLEN: Absolutely. Just exactly to your point, we say aviation is the safest mode. It comes as a result of our willingness, collectively, to say that we cannot tolerate a fatal aircraft accident. When we look at the ecosystem of all things automotive — there’s so much more in play, right? You’ve got fewer players in the aviation arena, and you’ve got high levels of controls around certification of pilots, certification of mechanics, certification of air traffic controllers. Heavy oversight of airlines. I can tell you, I’ve had communications in the past with automobile manufacturers and their senior leadership in the safety space about how do we work together? So I think you’ll see us continually advance. At the federal, state, and local level, we’re all vested in that zero fatal traffic accidents, right? And when we can come together and leverage technology, we can certainly put a big hole in that big number, which is unacceptable.
DUBNER: I liked your answer. It was a diplomatic answer. But let me poke at a couple pieces of it. Because pilots, let’s say, both training, certification, recertification — but also things like sobriety tests, right? And monitoring with technology and so on. Doesn’t it seem a little bit bonkers that just about anybody can get behind the wheel of a car just about any time and put the public at risk?
NOLEN: So you see where insurance companies will say, “If you’ve taken a defensive-driver course, here’s a reduction to your premium.” So there are some voluntary tools out there. I will say personally, I’m a big advocate of recurrent training. My training used to be every nine months during my airline career. And I knew that I was going to get put through my paces to make sure when I came out of there, there was a sense of comfort on the part of the check captain that Billy’s ready. And so could we take some of that and see how that would work on the automotive side? I think that’s an opportunity for us to have that kind of conversation. It was never a given that we were going to get to zero fatalities in aviation, right? It took a lot of work, as I said. Look at the work being done — I mean, I’ve got several cars and one for my one of my daughters. It’s got pre-collision warning. It’s got lane-departure warning, lane-keep assistance. And so we’re seeing technology evolve. We’ve got a collective sense of ownership in aviation, which is why we are so safe. We need that same collective sense of ownership and responsibility, that when I get behind the wheel of something that weighs 3,000-plus pounds, right? The physics of it are something that people just don’t always account for.
DUBNER: Commercial airliners rarely crash these days, but smaller and private planes still crash with some regularity. I’m curious what the F.A.A. is doing to diminish that.
NOLEN: Yeah, it’s a great point. We have done a lot of work in the general aviation space. We have something called the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee. We have the Helicopter Safety Team. I was at Oshkosh this summer — 10,000 general aviation airplanes were on the ground, 600-plus-thousand people were in attendance. And when you talk about safety, I got to tell you, it’s a pretty responsible community. We are seeing technology that used to be the purview of airliners, now some of that can move quite fast into general aviation. You’ve got better tools, you’re using iPads, you’ve got better systems that have weather, that have moving-map displays. In fact, sometimes they can move even faster because we’re such a heavily regulated industry when it comes to commercial passengers, but we’re making every effort.
* * *
PILOT: Flight attendants, prepare for arrival.
DUBNER: I don’t like our angle here. Am I paranoid?
Katie TRUETT: No, you’re right.
DUBNER: So I don’t like the tension. Can you tell me — like, what’s causing this emergency evacuation?
TRUETT: Well, you might see it in a second. I’m going to let it go, and see what you think
DUBNER: You’re cruel.
TRUETT: I know. I’m sorry.
That is Katie Truett. She used to be a musical-theater performer, and now she trains flight attendants at the Atlanta headquarters of Delta Air Lines. The training is six weeks long, and much of it involves responding to emergencies. Right now we are inside an old plane that’s been rigged up with hydraulics to simulate turbulence.
PILOT: Brace for landing.
TRUETT: There it is. So this is a command from the captain that tells us what to do. Stay down, bend over. Stay down, bend over, stay down. We’re checking outside. We’re looking to see if it’s safe. We’re looking to see what our conditions are.
PILOT: This is the captain. Evacuate. Evacuate.
TRUETT: All right. So then we tell you to get up and get out, which is: release seatbelts, leave everything. Release seatbelts, leave everything.
DUBNER: Can I just say, I’m flipping out right now, even though I know this is a simulation.
TRUETT: Release seatbelts, leave everything. Come this way, leave everything, jump and slide. And you’re going to put your hands out right in front of you. Put them right out in front of you.
DUBNER: But I’m jumping from here? Or I stand there?
TRAINER: You jump from here. Arms straight ahead.
TRUETT: There you go. Nicely done.
Even though every passenger on every airplane sits through a safety briefing at the start of every flight, Truett acknowledges that very few people think they’ll need that information.
TRUETT: Everybody thinks that our job is really to give you peanuts, right? But actually, our job is to keep you safe. That’s the number one job — we are actually first responders in a way. Everything from de-escalating someone who’s angry about something to evacuating an aircraft. And we are trained to evacuate an aircraft in 90 seconds. And 90 seconds for 300 people is a lot.
DUBNER: What’s going on over here?
TRUETT: She’s actually doing a C.Q. This is our continuing qualification. So continuing qualification means our flight attendants all have to come back every 18 months to get re-qualified to be a flight attendant.
MAN: Hey, Katie.
MAN: We actually need this real fast for —
TRUETT: Oh, sure, I’m so sorry. Pardon me.
DUBNER: You mean, actual training? Come on. Isn’t this more important? Getting a demonstration?
Worldwide, there are only around 30 full-plane evacuations each year — out of around 40 million flights. Yet another sign of how safe airline travel has become. If you need help from a flight attendant, it’s more likely because you’re having a heart attack or other medical issue. And that happens around 44,000 times a year.
TRUETT: We’re trained to understand how to handle basic medical problems.
DUBNER: How many times in your flying career have you needed to ask for a doctor or nurse on board?
TRUETT: Three or four.
DUBNER: And how many times did you get one?
TRUETT: Every time.
Conor MCGILL: They just made an announcement asking for a medical professional. And there’s some flight attendants running around. It’s not quite clear what’s going on.
That’s Conor McGill, one of the Freakonomics Radio listeners who sent us an audio diary of a recent trip. He was flying from Amsterdam to Minneapolis. When the call for help went out, his plane was already over the Hudson Bay in Canada, and there wasn’t a good option for a closer airport than Minneapolis. The patient was apparently unconscious — but, luckily, there was a passenger on board with medical training.
MCGILL: So we’re definitely bee-lining it to the airport. You can tell that the flight path is different than normal.
PILOT: It is very important that everyone remain in their seats. Once again, everyone needs to remain in their seats upon our landing, so that medical personnel can come on board the aircraft.
MCGILL: There’s airport fire E.M.T.s. Okay, looks like they got him off. It looks scary. That’s unfortunate.
NELSON: When somebody goes unconscious on a plane, that’s a serious issue.
That’s Sara Nelson. She’s a flight attendant with United Airlines, as well as president of the Association of Flight Attendants.
NELSON: And we’re trained to jump into action, give C.P.R., revive people. Flight attendants do this every single day. This is a big part of what they do. And when there’s that medical emergency, we also have to be on the lookout for any security risk because we have been trained that anything that happens on the plane could be a distraction from a bigger plot.
The role of the flight attendant has evolved along with commercial air travel.
NELSON: So our career was started by a brave woman, Ellen Church, who was a certified pilot and certified nurse, by the way. And she really, really wanted to fly. And so she tried to get a job as a pilot, and the airlines just said, “No, women don’t belong in the flight deck, they’re too emotional.” And so she made the argument that passengers get sick and there should be someone in the cabin to be able to assist with that. And if they fall ill, they need someone to attend to that. You don’t want to land with dead passengers. So she made the argument that flight attendants — or stewardesses, back then — should be in the cabin to attend to the needs of what was mostly men flying for business in those days. She was really arguing that flight attendants needed to be in the cabin in order to take care of the emotional men’s needs. So, “Ha, ha, ha.” You know, from the very beginning, there’s sexist tones there. We were defining this job as women’s work, and we had to fight through all those discriminatory barriers that were put up for our job. We had to quit at age 30, we had to step on a weight scale until 1993, you couldn’t be married or have children. And we fought for diversity, too. We fought for men to have the same rights on the job. And we fought for the airlines to be inclusive and hire people of color.
As for the current functions of the flight attendant, Nelson says there’s one constant danger to be aware of.
NELSON: Turbulence is the biggest threat to safety. So a lot of people are used to choppy air, where the airplane is making your coffee spill, things like that.
Branden MORRELL: We’re encountering some pretty decent turbulence right now. Nothing that would make the news. However, all the flight attendants have been ordered back into the jump seats, and everybody is required to have their seat belt on.
That is Freakonomics Radio listener Branden Morrell on a flight from Tokyo to Chicago.
MORRELL: I’ve never once been scared by turbulence. If you know anything about the engineering behind the planes and the wings, there’s no reason to be scared at all. Honestly, the most stressful part of turbulence is making sure this glass doesn’t topple over, that’s about the only thing I’m worried about.
It is true that turbulence doesn’t mean the plane is about to crash. But it can still be dangerous. Sara Nelson again:
NELSON: Severe turbulence is when there’s like an air pocket that’s hit, where the plane is dropping very quickly. There’s no warning for it — the plane will just drop thousands of feet. And that’s why you’ll hear people being thrown to the ceiling, hitting their head and coming down, along with anything that’s loose. So, we take turbulence extremely seriously. The flight deck will often be working with A.T.C. to get reports of turbulence ahead. It’s something that all the pilots will report out. Over the Pacific Ocean, they don’t have the same kind of technology to be able to identify where that turbulence is. So that is actually also more likely where you’re going to hit severe turbulence.
Pepper DEROY: They hit a bubble in the air and the bubble burst, and we collapsed for a little bit.
That is Pepper Deroy. He’s a singer and bassist for an Australian country-rock band called Hurricane Fall. In July of 2019, the band got on board an Air Canada flight.
DEROY: Yeah, it was A.C. 33, from Vancouver to Sydney with an unscheduled stop in Hawaii.
Hurricane Fall had just finished playing some dates in Canada.
Luke WHEELDON: We all had a pretty severe hangover.
And that’s Luke Wheeldon, a guitarist in the band.
WHEELDON: It was our last night in Canada, and it was successful. So everyone was ready for a good sleep really. The flight was fine until, yeah, we were just past Hawaii, I believe. And I was awake. But yeah, there was a sudden jolt, and half the plane flew into the roof. It was just shocking.
Wheeldon had his seatbelt on; but Deroy didn’t.
DEROY: I got up, went to the toilet, came back, was walking down the aisle, sat down with no seat belt on. The plane shook a little, and in an instant, I just remember being back on the seat, with what I thought was just a sore arm and then proved to be much more.
WHEELDON: The flight attendants were awesome. They immediately started trying to help people and stop people that were bleeding and that sort of stuff. The most disturbing thing was that there was nothing from the pilot for like 10 minutes. I was like, “You’ve got to say something, man.” It felt like forever. I don’t know how long it was, really, but it was a long time. And, I don’t know like, he was probably busy saving our lives. So, you know, there’s that too.
The plane made an emergency landing in Hawaii; 37 people were injured. The doctors in Hawaii cleared Deroy and his bandmates to fly back to Australia. When he got home, he went to the hospital.
DEROY: And I was like, “Yeah, it doesn’t feel right.” And then when the doctors showed me the C.T. scan with fragments of my neck floating around, he’s like, “Just stop what you’re doing right now.” Put me straight in a neck brace and like, “Do not move.”
Deroy had a broken neck; it took him 18 months to recover. Turbulence is the leading cause of accidents on larger U.S. commercial flights, and its share is increasing. That’s because other types of flying accidents have become less common. But there may be another reason. Sara Nelson again:
NELSON: The underlying issue here is that turbulence is getting worse because of climate change.
The idea here is that rising temperatures are making air currents more unstable. And that is essentially the definition of turbulence. Here’s Adam Uhan.
UHAN: We could go into more specific meteorological terms but the reality is, you’re going through an air that is no longer as stable as the air that you just came out of.
And that is why, even in the middle of a seemingly smooth flight, a pilot will sometimes turn on the seatbelt sign.
UHAN: It’s the biggest risk-mitigation strategy that we have in the airplane. We don’t want people to get hurt. Nobody wants anybody to get hurt on an airplane. That seatbelt is really there to protect you. Because if you hit turbulence hard enough, it can lift you out of that seat and move you around in that airplane any way it wants to.
The good news is that predicting and avoiding turbulence is getting easier.
UHAN: Thirty years ago, there was no way except for a forecast that was printed out. And back in the day, Northwest Airlines had these turbulence plots, which were the envy of the industry. Now, a lot of other airlines have adopted this methodology. My airline has probably one of the best weather radar packages on our tablets. We have a different wi-fi on board the airplane, and when it’s working, which most of the time it is, we can actually see down the road where there could be turbulence issues and then we can do stuff like climb up, descend, go left, go right and navigate around it. I wish — it’s something if I was in person, I’d show you, you’d be blown away by this system.
DUBNER: By what you can actually see?
UHAN: Oh, my God. I mean, you can see all the earthquakes that are happening in the world, volcanic activity — it’s wild. And you spin the globe around and you can see everything. It’s so cool. You know what? I just got a great idea to go to the bosses with. I’m going to say we should be doing little mini-documentaries, and say, “Hey, this is how we do all these different things.” I mean, they wouldn’t be a hit with everybody, but a lot of people would love two-minute informational clips about how things work.
And how does all that information get onto the pilot’s tablet?
Warren WESTON: We’re set up with almost two different groups.
That is Warren Weston. He is a lead meteorologist at Delta Air Lines headquarters, in Atlanta.
WESTON: We’ve got a division where we look at upper-air features — turbulence, thunderstorms, keeping an eye on volcanoes, ozone, all the different kinds of things that could interrupt a flight that’s at cruise altitude. The other side is more on the surface side, where we’re looking at weather on the ground, weather at our big airport operations — New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles. And we’re doing hour-by-hour forecasts for those hubs.
DUBNER: Just describe this screen, which is a beautiful screen, but people can’t see it.
WESTON: What we’re looking at here is tonight’s routes that go across the North Atlantic Ocean to Europe. So that’s these tracks — the tracks are kind of like a highway in the sky. We’re producing turbulence forecasts and maybe it will show, “Hey, we’re expecting some turbulence along this route between 30 and 35,000.” So when we take that information to the flight planner, they might file their flight that night higher, maybe 38,000, 40,000 — so that they are able to go over or around the depicted areas.
DUBNER: There are a lot of meteorologists in the world, and there’s a lot of information you can buy. Why does Delta bother to have this pretty big — how many meteorologists do you have here?
WESTON: So we’ve got 25 meteorologists.
DUBNER: So why is that an in-house function, meteorology?
WESTON: We are looking at things a lot more tailored towards our operation. A lot of the stuff that we produce, those are products that they aren’t getting anywhere else.
DUBNER: And what’s the R.O.I. on that for the airline? Is it worth having 25 of you?
WESTON: Yeah, I think it is, because we — first of all, we’re a global airline, so we’re covering our routes across the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii routes, all the domestic routes, South and Central America.
DUBNER: What about you? Why did you become a meteorologist?
WESTON: I grew up out in Colorado, and I would get frustrated when it wouldn’t snow. I wanted to go skiing. And so when I would see a forecast, they would call for snow and maybe we would only get a little bit, the young me was very interested in: why is this happening? Why can’t they get this right?
Weston’s meteorology department is one of many departments spread across a vast expanse in a building adjacent to the Atlanta airport. This is Delta’s O.C.C., or Operations and Customer Center. The person in charge is a man named Gregg Brandner. We meet up with him in a conference room that feels as serious as its name.
Gregg BRANDNER: This is our I.B.R. — so, incident briefing room. It is built primarily as a command center for an incident if we have an incident or accident. Incidents and accidents do happen. We have cyber threats now that happen. We would stand this room up, and it’s built for senior leaders to come in and be able to work through the incident, be briefed, and then work it through ‘till the end.
Brandner walks us out onto what looks like a Wall Street trading floor.
BRANDNER: You could call it a trading floor because there are thousands and thousands of transactions that are taking place.
DUBNER: What do you mean, what kinds of transactions?
BRANDNER: Whether it be a dispatch release, or a flight plan being sent, or if we get a look across the room, the maintenance coordination team could be working on an aircraft that’s broke or needs to be routed a certain way.
DUBNER: Can you just read down those three columns of functions?
BRANDNER: Sure, we’ve got the aircraft routing team; airport customer service; we’ve got catering, cargo, charters; corporate communications; corporate security; both crew teams — crew tracking, crew scheduling. We have our maintenance control manager that sits up on the bridge, the reservations, revenue management, and system operations managers that are managing the fleets.
DUBNER: And this guy whose shoulder we’re kind of looking over, he’s got — looks to be one, two, three, four, five, six, seven monitors at least. What’s he doing?
BRANDNER: Six monitors, and one of the other, the seventh, as you mentioned, that’s actually the phone system. Nevertheless, a lot of video that is presented to everybody in this room. A lot of information comes to them on these screens, whether it be just the alerting, or they can just look at things to just monitor. He’s got the weather viewer up there.
DUBNER: Does everybody always have the weather up?
BRANDNER: Because it’s such a driver of our operational outlook and ultimately result. So yes, there is a lot of video. We are working hard to reduce that footprint of monitors and try to present it in a more logical way, I’ll call it.
DUBNER: Just to be clear to someone who’s listening, we’re not anywhere near a flight tower.
BRANDNER: That’s a common misconception when I say I work at our Operations and Customer Center. We’re not in the airport. When I say if you think of it as mission control at NASA, right away they go, “Oh, you work in the tower?” No, I don’t work in the tower. If you’ve seen Apollo 13, the movie, mission control, that’s kind of the way this is set up. Apollo 13 was one mission, and we’re running well over 3,000 missions a day. So that’s the level of detail we have to put forth for every flight, every customer, every day. So this is our dispatch team. This is our strategic planning team, they’re trying to maintain the schedule integrity of an irregular operation.
DUBNER: I love that description. “They’re trying to maintain the schedule integrity of an irregular operation.” That describes the airline business.
BRANDNER: It’s very complex. Every day has something come up. No day just runs perfectly smooth. We’ll certainly have 100 percent completion-factor days. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t have to address — and I’m making this number up — 5,000 disruptions of some degree.
* * *
Okay, we’re talking about how airline travel got so safe, and I want to get back to Billy Nolen, the acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.
DUBNER: I have to tell you, my oldest — I’m the youngest in a big family — my oldest brother was an Air Force pilot.
NOLEN: Oh, cool.
DUBNER: Yeah, very cool. I didn’t inherit any of the, uh — I’ve asked him to explain to me over the years, many times, literally how it works, the physics and the engine, and I can’t. I just don’t have the brain for it.
NOLEN: There’s always time. The world is in dire need of pilots. So, you know, Stephen, you may have an alternative career there.
DUBNER: Well, I can assure you that my eyesight alone will preclude me from that. But let me ask you, since you’ve brought it up, the pilot shortage. How do you think about that from your perspective?
NOLEN: There’s a couple of dynamics in play. As a result of the pandemic, we had a large number of pilots who elected to retire. And at the same time, we didn’t have at universities or flight schools the numbers that we needed. You could call that a sort of a perfect storm. But, as a result of that, we’ve seen a real uptake in terms of what the airlines are doing on their side. They’ve established their aviation academies. And at the same time, on the government side, we’re producing more designated pilot examiners. It’s the F.A.A. who certifies them. They all get a license with my signature on it. So at the end of the day, we want to make sure that they’re safe, they’re ready to go.
BASTIAN: There is a shortage broadly in our country. A lot of it was driven by the pandemic because a lot of airline pilots retired.
That, again, is Ed Bastian, the C.E.O. of Delta.
BASTIAN: Delta alone, we had 2,000 pilots that we retired through an early incentive arrangement that we provided them. And the amount of training that it takes to bring 2,000 new pilots in and the time it takes, has created a long-lived recovery period. Then you have that same ripple effect going on throughout the industry because we didn’t have a lot of pilots on the streets, and the military isn’t producing as many pilots these days.
UHAN: Well, I’ll speak to the military-to-civilian pipeline.
And that, again, is Adam Uhan, a former Air Force pilot who now flies for a major airline.
UHAN: Yes, that pipeline’s gotten smaller. It’s gotten smaller for a host of reasons. Obviously, the military has had some downsizing events. The real big issue is production of pilots has slowed. And this goes back to the very first point that we were talking about — the magic of aviation and flight. The magic that attracted me and that blew me away as a little kid, I don’t think it’s out there as much as it was. And the whole romance of flight. And then the service aspect of wanting to be a military aviator — I think there’s people who fear the military aviation, thinking, “I don’t know if I have that service bone in my body.” And the reality is, I think a lot more people do have these kind of things that they can bring to the table in aviation. And one of the things that I’m applauding is we’re now reaching past the traditional communities, because, let’s face it, aviation is predominantly a male-dominated sport. And that is starting to be flipped on its head just a little bit. And you don’t make a pilot overnight. You can’t go to a ten-week school and have a degree in aviation and go and fly as a captain for a major airline. That’s not how it works. It takes years to get there.
And that gets us into the economics of pilot creation. Because it is not cheap.
UHAN: Why would somebody pay $150,000 in student loans to become a pilot when they can pay $150,000 in student loans to become a lawyer, and they walk out with a much-better-paying career in the beginning.
Pilots do make good money eventually. At airlines like Frontier, Alaska, and Southwest, the first-year salary for a captain ranges from around $180,000 a year to $240,000. Although, typically you don’t start at captain; you start as a first officer, or what used to be called co-pilot. At the bigger U.S. airlines like Delta, United, and American, first-year captain salaries are in the three-hundred thousands. The problem is, as Adam Uhan said, pilot training takes a long time and costs a lot of money. This wasn’t always the case, and that too is connected to the rise of safety in commercial aviation. In 2009, a flight out of Newark, N.J., operated by Colgan Air, crashed on its approach into Buffalo, N.Y., killing all 49 people on board and one on the ground. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the crash was likely caused by pilot error — specifically, “the captain’s inappropriate response to the activation of the stick shaker, which led to an aerodynamic stall from which the airplane did not recover.” The N.T.S.B. cited several other contributing factors, all related to crew or airline failures. In response to this crash, Congress mandated that all commercial-airline pilots have at least 1,500 hours of flying experience. Until then, airlines could hire pilots with just 250 hours. The F.A.A. says there’s “no quantifiable relationship between the 1,500-hour requirement and airplane accidents.” But the fact remains that the Colgan crash was the last major commercial aviation crash in the U.S. And that was in 2009. This is an astonishing safety record — produced, as we’ve been hearing today, by a number of factors, including advances in aviation tech. I asked Adam Uhan what he thinks the job of pilot will look like in a few decades.
UHAN: The generation that’s currently employed at the airlines and the folks who are just starting their journeys, I think that they’re going to be okay. I think that there is regulation in place. The contracts from the airlines to the unions — a lot of those jobs are protected. I don’t know about after that. I don’t know if we’re going to start seeing a single-pilot operation in some —
DUBNER: How about a zero-pilot operation?
UHAN: I don’t ever want to think that way, because I don’t know — I love the idea of self-driving cars and the hyperloop. But I also know, because I’ve seen it, where the machine does something that just doesn’t make sense.
DUBNER: When you say you’ve seen it, what do you mean?
UHAN: I’ve flown both Boeing and Airbus products. And I have seen both of those products do something that was unexpected. I’ve seen a system fail or a weather-radar return come up and it looks nominal or not important and you fly close to it and you’re getting a moderate to severe level of turbulence or you’re in icing that you didn’t expect. And I don’t know if our predictive technology is quite there yet. I’m not saying it won’t be. I’m definitely not saying that, because I do believe we will be able to figure all these things out — and that’s great, that’s progress. The other thing is your emotional response of getting on an airplane where there’s no voice that comes from the front. I don’t know how many people are ready for that. I know I’m not. I want somebody to be able to — if the machine goes wrong, can at least shut the machine off and turn it back on again, control-alt-delete it back into correction.
BASTIAN: I never want to be on an airplane without a Delta pilot at the wheel.
Ed Bastian again.
BASTIAN: Our planes do have a lot of autonomy. They are operated largely by technology — and pilots are there to manage the technology and intervene as necessary. But there are other companies that are developing platforms where planes can be controlled through remote operation. And the argument is that they’re safer. I won’t get on one. And I think it’s going to take quite a number of years before consumers will eventually be willing to get on one.
Although a human pilot can override a confused computer, the primary cause of most fatal accidents is human error. This past January, there was a near-miss at J.F.K. Airport in New York City, when two planes nearly collided on a runway. Delta flight 1943 was getting ready to take off.
CONTROLLER: Delta 1943, cancel takeoff clearance. Delta 1943 cancel takeoff clearance.
That’s an air traffic controller telling the Delta flight to abort takeoff. There was another plane on its runway, just 1,000 feet ahead. The pilots of that plane, an American Airlines jet, had made a wrong turn.
CONTROLLER: All right, and — oof, Delta 1943.
Before we get to zero-pilot planes, the interim step is probably one-pilot planes. After all, technology in the cockpit just keeps getting better. Adam Uhan again:
UHAN: The next generation of these airplanes, it’s the Starship Enterprise or even further along the line. So you bring on this new technology that has made us safer. Weather radar is far superior than it’s ever been before. Traffic-collision avoidance systems, ground-proximity warning systems that we have. The fact that we now communicate, when we’re flying over the ocean, instead of listening to a high-frequency radio that’s spitting out static for seven hours, you basically have a text message system with somebody on the ground, which then keeps me from getting audio fatigue, so I am now less tired as I fly through the air. So when something bad does happen, I can react.
DUBNER: It’s an interesting point you raise about audio fatigue. I guess that’s a case where better technology lets you be better at doing the things that you do as a human. Are there other examples of technologies that you feel accentuate or highlight your human abilities?
UHAN: One that’s very, very small but for instance, some aircraft have what’s called auto-trim. So trim is the — basic aerodynamic 101 here — is a tab on parts of the airplane that you can trim off pressure, so the airplane is easier to control or maneuver. Well, over the years, they have developed an auto-trim system on some airplanes where there’s no button for us to actually manually manipulate the trim tab. And the computer does it for us. So now, instead of me having to click, click, click, click, and move that trim tab as I’m moving the stick, all I do is point the airplane to the position I want it to go, and it goes there. Now people say, “Well, that’s easy.” Yeah, you’re right, it’s totally easy. But when you’re flying into a really crowded airspace situation, and you have weather, now you have a little less to concentrate on. Those things do make you sort of superhuman, because your situational awareness — which is critical for pilots — instead of it being taken away, your situational awareness now has expanded. You know where other airplanes are. You know what’s happening on the runway. You understand all those kinds of things.
DUBNER: Let me ask you this, Adam. Are pilots normal people who happen to fly airplanes or are you all sort of weirdos?
UHAN: Uh, a little from column A and a lot from column B? I think when you meet us as a whole at a party, you’d know something was maybe a little different about that person. There’s an old joke: “How do you know that a fighter pilot was at your party?” Is, “He’ll tell you.” And the reality is most pilots like to talk about aviation, especially when they’re new and younger in the field. It kind of feels like part of who we are. And no matter how much we might try to deny that, it’s kind of ingrained in our personality.
Also ingrained in the pilot personality, from what I can tell, is an absolute obsession with safety. I think back to something my brother Joe, the former Air Force pilot, once told me. We had just had a family reunion on the east coast; he lives out west, and he’d flown in on his own plane. It is a tiny little “experimental jet” that he built, it’s basically a motorcycle with wings. On the last night of the reunion, we were all having an early dinner together in the hotel restaurant. It was only around 5:30 or 6pm, and Joe stood up, said he’d enjoyed the reunion, and now he was saying goodbye. And we all said, “Joe, it’s so early, what’s your hurry?” And he said that he had several hours of flight planning ahead of him. And then he said: “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” Here, again, is Adam Uhan:
UHAN: I’ve done this for a long time. When I was younger, I sure as hell wanted people in the military to appreciate what I was doing. And then when I got into the airline, I thought the same thing. But I realized, after the years that go by, the best thing that can ever happen is I never make a highlight reel. Everything went smooth. I retire. And I get a nice lithograph signed by my friends. The reality is that things do run really smoothly. And that’s why when the traveling public sees the hiccup, it is so eye-gougingly painful because now all of a sudden you’re delayed 25 minutes. And it’s like, think about it for a second: you’re hurtling through the air at 530 miles an hour, going from New York to Los Angeles. You’re going to be there in less than 5 hours. Less than 200 years ago, it took people 28 days or more to travel that same distance, and most of them didn’t make it. So I think the perspective is needed. And it’s even needed for guys in the industry, sometimes we need a little bit of that too. But I hate to say this because it does become a job sometimes, and you forget. My favorite thing about flying — it still to this day, it’s my favorite thing — it’s when it’s cloudy outside and you punch through the cloud layer, and you get that first glint of sun. It’s, it’s, it’s still — it blows my mind every time I do it.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Ryan Kelley and mixed by Greg Rippin, with help from Jeremy Johnston and, in Atlanta, from Evan Profant. Special thanks to all our listeners who sent in their travel diaries; and to Lillian Bates for helping organize them. Our staff also includes Zack Lapinski, Morgan Levey, Katherine Moncure, Alina Kulman, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Julie Kanfer, Eleanor Osborne, Jasmin Klinger, Daria Klenert, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Elsa Hernandez. The Freakonomics Radio Network’s executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. And thanks to Hurricane Fall for letting us play some of their 2016 song “How We Get Down.”
- Ed Bastian, C.E.O. of Delta Air Lines.
- Gregg Brandner, general manager at Delta Airlines’ Operations and Customer Center.
- Pepper Deroy, singer and bassist for the band Hurricane Fall.
- Conor McGill, Freakonomics Radio listener and airline passenger.
- Branden Morrell, Freakonomics Radio listener and airline passenger.
- Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants and flight attendant with United Airlines.
- Billy Nolen, acting administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration.
- Katie Truett, flight attendant trainer for Delta Air Lines.
- Adam Uhan, pilot for a major U.S. airline and former U.S. Air Force pilot.
- Warren Weston, lead meteorologist at Delta Air Lines.
- Luke Wheeldon, guitarist for the band Hurricane Fall.
- “Most Fatal Accidents in 2022 Have Known Mitigations From Past Accidents,” by Adrian Young (To 70, 2023).
- “U.S. Civil Aviation Accident Statistics,” by the National Transportation Safety Board (2021).
- “Preventing Turbulence-Related Injuries in Air Carrier Operations Conducted Under Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 121,” the National Transportation Safety Board (2021).
- “Aviation Safety: A Whole New World?” by Arnold Barnett (Transportation Science, 2020).
- “Global Status Report on Road Safety 2018,” by the World Health Organization (2018).
- “The Safest — and Deadliest — Ways to Travel,” by Christopher Ingraham (The Washington Post, 2015).
- “Airlines Fear Pilot Shortage Amid New Federal Safety Rules,” by All Things Considered (N.P.R., 2012).
- “Fatality Analysis Reporting System Encyclopedia,” by the National Highway Safety Administration.
- “Freakonomics Radio Takes to the Skies,” series by Freakonomics Radio (2023).
- “The Most Dangerous Machine,” by Freakonomics Radio (2013).