Getting to this level wasn’t easy. Mainly it’s the result of better pilot training, improved cockpit technology, and the seldom-acknowledged collaborative efforts of the airline industry, regulators, pilot groups, and international organizations like ICAO. (ICAO—Eye-kay-oh, the International Civil Aviation Organization—is the aviation directorate of the United Nations and sets global protocols on a wide range of safety issues, from runway markings to approach procedures.) Not long ago, as air travel was beginning to expand rapidly in places like China, India, and Brazil, experts warned of a tipping point. Unless bound deficiencies were self-addressed, we have a tendency to were told, disasters would become epidemic, at a rate of up to 1 per week. Fortunately they were addressed, most notably in the area of crew training, and the end result is that we’ve effectively engineered away some of the most common causes of crashes.
Maintaining such high standards, however, is going to take some effort. And while I shouldn’t have to say it, here goes: At some point our luck will run out. There will be another catastrophic accident. Affirming this today is a good way of reducing the shock later on. It’s not to suggest that we let our guard down; it’s to recognize the inevitable and acknowledge that no system, no matter how good, can ever be perfect. And when it happens, we should probably brace ourselves for the reaction. The amount of media attention given to minor mishaps, precautionary landings, and harmless malfunctions in recent years is a depressing precursor of what’s to come when something legitimately serious happens. The worst thing about the next big crash will be the loss of life. The second worst thing will be the overreaction and hype.