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AP-NORC Poll: Most Americans say air travel is safe despite recent scares

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Most U.S. adults believe that air travel is generally safe in the U.S., despite some doubts about whether aircraft are being properly maintained and remain free from structural problems.

About 7 in 10 U.S. adults say planes are a “very” or “somewhat” safe method of travel, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Even with that high level of trust, only about 2 in 10 U.S. adults have “a great deal” of confidence that airplanes are being properly maintained, or that they are safe from structural faults. Another half have a “moderate” amount of faith that this is the case.

The poll was conducted after a Jan. 5 accident in which a panel blew off an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 jetliner 16,000 feet (4,900 meters) above Oregon, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the plane. That led to the grounding of more than 140 planes and raised questions about Boeing’s ongoing manufacturing problems as well as the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to address them.

U.S. adults are more confident in airline pilots’ and air traffic controllers’ ability to maintain air safety than they are in the commercial airlines, airplane manufacturers or federal government agencies charged with it. A majority have at least a “moderate” amount of confidence that each is ensuring safety.

Some with fears of flying expressed even more concern because of the Alaska Airlines incident.

“I don’t enjoy flying. It is so unnatural — we’re in a metal tube flying through the air,” said Margaret Burke of Pensacola, Florida, who read accounts of the jetliner incident, which resulted in no serious injuries. “The fact that people do fly safely every day seems, to me, like a miracle.”

Despite her fear, Burke will board a plane for a trip to California this spring because of the speed and convenience that air travel offers.

“I have a 3-year-old, and I can’t put him in a car seat for three days straight, that’s just unfair,” she said.

Even with maintenance concerns, U.S. adults have a higher level of certainty that airline pilots and air traffic controllers are well-trained and engaged in proper safety procedures. Slightly fewer than half — 45% — have “a great deal” of confidence in pilots’ training, while 38% say that about air traffic controllers.

About one-quarter of U.S. adults have a high level of confidence that air travel is safe from terrorist attacks, or that government agencies have enacted necessary safety regulations. Even with the variation, a majority of U.S. adults have at least “a moderate amount” of confidence that planes are safe, pilots are well-trained and the regulations are appropriate.

That may be because flying is still much safer than driving and also safer than rail travel on a per-mile basis, according to U.S. Department of Transportation figures.

Airline officials and aviation regulators like to point out that there has not been a fatal crash of a U.S. airliner since 2009, although in 2018 a passenger died on a Southwest flight after an engine explosion and in the past year there has been a sharp increase in close calls being investigated by federal officials.

Sherry Kohn, a retired English literature teacher in Pennsylvania, thinks that flying is generally safe — “I would get on a plane” — but she is among those who are only moderately confident that planes are manufactured safely.

“Nobody is going to put something out that’s going to kill people, I don’t think,” she said, “but Boeing has had a history of problems.”

Kohn also worries about maintenance.

“They recycle these planes so quickly,” she said. “It lands, somebody goes in and vacuums. I don’t know that they are checking (the planes) as carefully as they should.”

About one-quarter of U.S. adults say they travel by plane at least a few times a year when traveling long distances.

Those frequent flyers are more likely than those who fly less often to have a great deal of confidence on all categories: that airplanes are being properly maintained, are safe from structural faults, that air traffic controllers are well-trained, that pilots are well-trained, that government agencies have enacted the necessary safety regulations and that it’s safe from terrorist acts.

Randi Niedfeldt, a retired physician assistant in Wisconsin, has a great deal of confidence in the planes, despite the recent incidents. Her husband is a recreational pilot, and he checks the type of plane they’ll be flying on, but they don’t avoid any specific make or model.

“How many big airplane crashes do you hear about?” she asked. “When they happen, they’re catastrophic, but they don’t happen very often for the amount of flying that is done.”

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The poll of 1,152 adults was conducted Jan. 25–29, 2024, using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.0 percentage points.

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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