United Airlines and commercial air travel are safe, experts say


A recent string of inflight safety emergencies has thrust United Airlines into the spotlight, leading some travelers to worry that the airline, and even commercial air travel in general, has perhaps become less safe.

Last week, a United flight lost a rear tire during takeoff in San Francisco and made an emergency landing in Los Angeles, marking the airline’s fourth mishap in one week. But aviation experts insist that air travel remains among the safest modes of transportation, and it’s just coincidental that the safety incidents occurred in such close proximity to one another, and were concentrated at United.

For its part, United said the events were “distinct and unrelated to one another.”

What happened?

The most recent incident, concerning United Flight 821 from San Francisco International Airport to Mexico City International Airport, was diverted to Los Angeles due to an issue with the aircraft’s hydraulic system. The airline said the aircraft has three hydraulic systems for “redundancy purposes,” and “preliminary information shows there was only an issue with one system on this aircraft.” The aircraft made a safe landing and nobody was injured. 

That incident came on the heels of another on United Flight 2477, departing from Memphis, Tennessee, which skidded off the runway into a grassy area after landing at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. 

Previously, a Japan-bound United flight out of San Francisco lost one of its tires on takeoff — and made a safe emergency landing. 

A United Airlines spokesperson said the aircraft had extra tires and is designed to land safely “with missing or damaged tires.”

The first incident was even more of a fluke: A Florida-bound United flight’s engine caught fire after it had sucked in littered bubble wrap. 

Incidents aren’t evenly spaced out

Given how many flights airlines operate every year and how technical aircraft operations are, some hitches are expected. 

“We see these kinds of events happen, and not all of them were preventable from United’s perspective,” Mark Millam, director of technical programs at the Flight Safety Foundation, told CBS MoneyWatch. 

“These incidents aren’t enough to come to some determination on one airline’s performance versus another’s. There are not any clear signals that United has any different performance than another airline,” Millam added. 

The consecutive timing of the incidents is slightly unusual, he conceded. 

“This doesn’t usually happen this frequently within a one-week period, but United has grown in size so some of these events just don’t come in a steady and regularly spaced interval,” Millam said, who conceded nonetheless that it’s not a good look for the airline.

“They don’t want to lose the confidence of the people in the back,” he said.

Fluke in timing

Airline industry analyst Kit Darby also chalked up the string of incidents happening back-to-back up to a fluke in timing. 

“Overall, nothing stands out to me, other than a large coincidence,” he told CBS MoneyWatch. “Looking at each separately, some of them are extremely rare, like losing the tire.”

And even then, the aircraft has spares and is designed to function without one, meaning it’s not a particularly threatening event, according to Darby.

“It’s way too early to have any idea why it came off,” he added.

Still the safest means of travel 

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg addressed consumer concerns around flying at a recent press conference. He said flight safety has improved, according to federal data, and added that “American aviation is the safest means of travel in the world.”

And it’s getting safer, according to International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) 2023 safety report.

In 2023, there were no fatal accidents for jet aircraft, leading to a record-low fatality risk rate, according to the report. More specifically, a person would have to travel by air every day for 103,239 years to experience a fatal accident, based on statistics.



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