Managing Aviation Risk: Lessons from Boeing Safety Incidents

On March 18, 2024, The New York Times reported that United Airlines planes suffered eight incidents over the past two weeks requiring diversions or emergency landings. This is the latest in a series of headline-making aviation coverage. The U.S. media is focused on Boeing – fueled by the tragic death of a Boeing engineer and past groundings of the Boeing 737 Max. However, aviation incidents have been recently reported across multiple manufacturers and airlines.

These incidents serve as an important reminder that flying in the air is a marvel… and a human endeavor. Statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) show that 80 percent of all aviation accidents can be attributed to human error. Statistics also show that flying remains the safest mode of transportation in the U.S. There hasn’t been a fatal U.S. airline crash since 2009.

Commercial aviation is a complex ecosystem of public and private partners managing aircraft design and manufacturing, passenger screening, ground maintenance, air traffic control, and piloting. Flying is only as safe as every employee in this ecosystem performing to the highest standard. Consequently, these incidents can result in immediate investigations, corrective measures, grounding of planes, and even significant regulatory changes. These are the dynamic risks that come with aviation incidents, regardless of the immediate impacts.

These events are in the news because there is no such thing as a minor airplane incident. These incidents are both traumatic and highly inconvenient for the passengers. Leveraging insights from a risk intelligence provider can alleviate some of this pain by proactively identifying the impact an aviation incident may have. AI-powered risk intelligence parses through real-time information related to flight delays, diversions, and emergency landings; tracks incident trends across manufacturers and airlines; and monitors signals like airport closures, bad weather, and other intelligence that may indicate an impact to air travel.

This data can also be used to restore confidence to our business travelers – aviation incidents are rare and their employer is looking out for their care while they travel.

Risk Events

  • On January 5, 2024, a plug door blew out from an Alaskan Airlines Boeing 737-9 MAX aircraft mid-flight resulting in multiple minor injuries.
  • On February 6, 2024, an Alaskan Airlines Boeing 737-8 MAX aircraft experienced stuck rudder pedals during landing.
  • On March 11, 2024, a technical event in the cockpit of a LATAM Airlines Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner caused a sudden 300-foot drop in altitude and subsequent emergency landing.
  • On March 14, 2024, a Boeing 737-800 took off from San Francisco missing an external panel.

Implications for Risk Managers

Do we exercise caution before traveling on certain aircraft or airlines? How can I help my organization stay resilient with business travel? What actions can I take when an aviation incident is reported to me?

Should we prohibit employees from flying on certain aircraft or airlines?

  1. Regulatory institutions in the U.S. remain independent and effective. The FAA investigates aviation safety incidents, and the NTSB investigates aviation accidents and crashes. The Boeing plug door incident in January is under active investigation by NTSB and the Justice Department. Following the incident the FAA indefinitely halted plans to increase production of that Boeing model.
  2. We can expect a significant tightening of regulatory oversight across the aviation industry following these incidents. Every organization is encouraged to assess the risk for themselves, but industry accountability is working, and regulators do not appear to hesitate in grounding air operations if there is a perceived issue.

How do we keep our business travelers resilient despite media reporting on safety concerns?

  1. Some travelers may find it reassuring to look at the data. Flying remains the safest mode of transportation in the United States. In 2021, there were 1.0 fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours globally. This is down from 9.08 accidents per 100,000 hours in 1994. Framed another way, there were 0.04 deaths per 100 million miles flown globally. By comparison, train travel accounts for 0.01 deaths per 100 million miles traveled globally. Motor vehicle accidents account for 1.5 deaths per 100 million miles driven.
  2. Travelers may also find it reassuring to know that their employer or Travel Management Company (TMC) is proactively monitoring for risks and impacts in aviation. Receiving a notification about a flight delay, cancellation, or reroute that includes verified information, and recommended actions can go a long way in helping restore traveler confidence.

What are some recommended steps we should take following an aviation incident?

  1. OnSolve’s Global Risk and Intelligence Services provides complimentary overwatch support for Travel Management Company (TMC) customers and their travelers. In this capacity we track AI-powered risk intelligence reporting across the aviation sector. Our analysts then filter this reporting based on active travel itineraries in the system. We take the following actions when aviation risk is identified:
    1. Verify the active status of impacted flights and assess their future status based on verified risk intelligence concerning flights, airports, weather, or impending regulatory action.
    2. Cross reference these flights with traveler itineraries to determine which travelers are impacted.
    3. Craft messages to impacted travelers based on contextualized intelligence, and customized templates and SOPs provided by their respective organization or TMC.
    4. Assess cascading impacts from an aviation incident. It’s always possible that regulators ground a specific aircraft model, suspend an airline, or inspect airport operations following an incident. This can have a much broader impact on travel.
  2. Following an aviation incident it’s important to check in with impacted employees and offer additional support and care services. Aviation incidents are traumatic and there are well-regarded resources and partners that can provide support and care for impacted passengers.

The mission can feel daunting and the path forward unclear. If you’d like to continue this discussion, provide feedback, or are looking for assistance, OnSolve is here to help.

(Information cut-off date 1000 PT, March 19, 2024)

Nick Hill

Nick Hill is Senior Analyst, Global Risk and Intelligence Services, where he drives intelligence analysis and services implementation to help customers mitigate dynamic risks and strengthen organizational resilience. Prior to his current role, Nick led product development and services implementation for a physical security provider leveraging AI to improve critical incident management. Nick is a former security manager overseeing travel risk management, risk intelligence, and global security operations, and previously served in the Marine Corps overseeing strategic intelligence analysis and production. For more real-time risk and resilience insights follow Nick on LinkedIn.