Oct 24, 2023 - Economy & Business

Narrowly averted disasters beg the question: How safe is flying?

Illustration of a flying airplane with a fingers crossed emoji on the tail.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A pair of recent alarming incidents — including one involving an off-duty pilot who said he took psychedelic mushrooms before allegedly nearly causing a plane to crash — are raising fresh concerns about aviation safety.

Why it matters: Air traffic controllers and other experts are warning that the system is overtaxed and that a recent spate of near-misses are blaring warning sirens that must be addressed.

  • U.S. commercial aviation has gone nearly 15 years without a major air disaster — a remarkable stretch, but not an unbreakable one.

Driving the news: The first incident, at Oregon's Portland International Airport on Oct. 16, was the latest in an ongoing string of near-misses during takeoffs or landings.

  • The pilots of an Alaska Airlines flight performing a go-around briefly followed an air traffic controller's turning instruction meant for a SkyWest jet taking off on a parallel runway, per recorded communications.
  • The Alaska Airlines jet turned toward the departing SkyWest flight before the controller saw the emerging situation and redirected the Alaska jet. (It's unclear if the controller heard the Alaska pilot read back the initial instructions meant for SkyWest.)
  • The Alaska crew "followed cockpit indications and reacted immediately to increase separation from the other aircraft," Alaska Airlines said in a statement. "The aircraft maintained a safe amount of lateral separation throughout the entire event."

Be smart: Parallel runway operations are common at many airports but require heightened attention from controllers and pilots.

  • The Federal Aviation Administration, meanwhile, has prioritized the near-miss problem.
  • The FAA had been without a Senate-confirmed administrator for nearly two years, though Michael Whitaker was confirmed in the role late Tuesday.

In a separate, far more chilling event, an off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot was charged with 83 counts of attempted murder after allegedly trying to shut down a jet's engines shortly after takeoff Sunday on a flight from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco.

  • The pilot was riding in the jump seat — a common way for off-duty pilots and crew to fly back to home base or another airport — and reached for switches that would have disabled the engines.
  • He was subdued and then restrained in the back of the plane. The flight, operated by Horizon Air — which shares a parent company with Alaska Airlines — diverted to Portland.

The latest: The rogue pilot, Joseph David Emerson, 44, later told police that he hadn't slept in 40 hours, that he'd been battling depression for about six months, and that it was "his first time taking mushrooms," per a court filing published Tuesday.

Path of Horizon flight 2059 on Oct. 22, 2023
Data: FlightAware; Map: Jacque Schrag/Axios

What they're saying: "Throughout his career, Emerson completed his mandated FAA medical certifications in accordance with regulatory requirements, and at no point were his certifications denied, suspended or revoked," reads Alaska Airlines' statement.

  • "Our crew responded without hesitation to a difficult and highly unusual situation, and we are incredibly proud and grateful for their skillful actions," the airline added.
  • The FAA "supports law enforcement in their response and will be focused on any safety considerations for the future that emerge from investigations," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a separate statement.

The intrigue: The incident is shining a fresh spotlight on pilot mental health.

  • It has worrisome echoes of Germanwings Flight 9525, a 2015 mass murder-suicide in which the co-pilot deliberately flew an Airbus A320 into a mountainside, killing all 150 aboard.

Some pilots and others have long argued that the FAA takes too hard a line on mental health issues, making pilots reluctant to seek the help they might need for fear that any admittance of a mental health issue will cost them the medical certificate they need to keep flying.

  • There's a delicate balance here: Pilots with major mental health issues may be unfit to fly, but those with less serious conditions may be better off being able to get the treatment they need without fear of losing their job.
  • The FAA is working to "reduce the stigma" around mental health care, but a reluctance to seek care remains prevalent throughout the profession.

Of note: That both of these flights involved Alaska Airlines and Portland International Airport seems more coincidence than anything endemic to the company, airport or area.

The bottom line: In both of these cases, the so-called "Swiss cheese model" of aviation safety prevented disaster.

  • In the first, an air traffic controller eventually realized the Alaska pilot's mistake and sent corrective instructions (the pilots may have also received automated warnings from an anti-collision system). In the second, the on-duty crew was able to restrain the rogue off-duty pilot.
  • Yet they are both alarming nonetheless, and while commercial aviation remains remarkably safe, the incidents are reminders that in any endeavor as complicated as commercial flight, complacency can invite disaster.
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