In March 2008, a mid-sized passenger jet, an Airbus A320, was approaching Kansas City International Airport for landing when an automated warning went off in the cockpit: collision alert.
The instruments said another plane was 700 feet away and closing.
The first officer looked for the other plane but couldn't spot it. The Airbus pilot pulled up as the computer's commands grew increasingly urgent: Climb! Climb faster!
The alerts stopped. The other plane could now be seen veering away. The instruments said it had come within 300 feet of the Airbus, less than three times the nose-to-tail length of the plane itself.
A collision could have been catastrophic. Instead, the Airbus landed safely and quietly, the latest survivor of the hundreds of close calls reported in the safest decade of American air travel since the invention of flight.
"I'm so pissed off about this because so many reporters have screwed this up for so many months now," Doug Church tells The Pitch. Church is spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), the union for controllers. He's not pleased to hear that someone is writing about unverifiable reports. Again. "It's raw data," he says. "It's one side of a story that has a lot of sides to it."
That March 2008 incident is taken from a pilot's anonymous recounting for the Aviation Safety Reporting System, a snitch-and-bitch database of air events — some of them dangerous — that pilots and air traffic controllers encounter while working.
The particulars of that sweaty moment near KCI could not be corroborated. The Federal Aviation Administration, when asked about it, provided no further information. "This is written from a pilot's perspective and doesn't have a flight number, date or any other marker that helps us identify them," says Elizabeth Isham Cory, a spokeswoman for the FAA. "While this report may be legitimate, it lacks identifying detail."
Recent stories using this kind of unconfirmed data, and describing similar aerial mishaps, have appeared in publications nationwide, giving Church and the NATCA reason to be pissed. "It's given us a bad name for having fallen down on the job," he says.
Because here's the thing: According to more verifiable research, you're safe.
Statistics compiled by aviation manufacturer Boeing in June of this year* show that U.S. and Canadian airlines have averaged less than one fatal accident per million flights since 2000. To put that number in context, let's say the odds were one-in-a-million for driving. If you hopped in your car twice a day every day, you'd average a fatal accident every 1,400 years.
Boeing and other airline players, of course, have a vested interest in keeping those numbers as low as possible. When flying makes headlines, it's usually because what happened was especially nerve-shredding. Anyone who flies regularly might still be thinking about this past April 1, for example, when the ceiling ripped off a Southwest Airlines 737 midflight, precipitating an emergency landing. The episode led to a lot of public contrition from Southwest executives, who immediately grounded their fleet to make sure none of their other rides had convertible tops.
An airliner hasn't crashed in this country since 2009. The FAA has 46 databases that it uses to track safety; it wants to expand to 64. On the rare occasion that a plane crashes, the National Transportation Safety Board combs over the accident with obsessive meticulousness. If flight safety were a 14-year-old pianist, it'd be headed to Juilliard.
*POP-CULTURE FACT CHECK: You remember Say Anything, right? At the end of that 1989 movie, Lloyd Dobler — played by John Cusack — tries to convince his afraid-to-fly girlfriend that, statistically speaking, everything will be OK after the no-smoking light on their trans-Atlantic jet turns off. It's a metaphor for the young couple's holy-shit, flying-by-the-seats-of-our-pants teen relationship, and it also became an emotional touchstone for a lot of people who grew up in the 1980s. The movie ends on a cute note: The screen cuts to black as the no-smoking light dings off, cueing the credits and a happyish ending. But Boeing's statistics for global air travel say that, between 2001 and 2010, almost twice as many people (3,130) died during the cruise-to-landing stages of flight than during takeoff and climbing (1,640). So everything the 1980s taught us is probably wrong.