In Spite Of Everything, We Feel Safe


When you boil it all down, just about every magazine, podcast, video and article about aviation has a single central theme. With the exception of some cool stuff coverage, we’re all about safety and the pursuit thereof.

So, I was intrigued by what seemed to be an overly gushy announcement from NASA that submissions to its Aviation Safety Reporting Service had skyrocketed and that was a good thing. What it meant, NASA said, was that pilots and other aviation professionals were hopping onboard the safety bandwagon and doing their best to ensure their bad luck, good luck or general boneheadedness could be a teaching moment for the rest of us.

In case you’re unaware, ASRS is an anonymous tipline where pilots and anyone else in care or control of flying machines can report hazards they’ve spotted, mistakes others have made and dumbass things they’ve done themselves anonymously and without fear of repercussions. The record number NASA is crowing about is more than 100,000 entries in 2023. NASA, you see, thinks the upward spiral of aviation missteps that we in the industry have deemed report-worthy is indicative not of increasing danger but rather a healthy safety culture.

Well, I know spin when it zips right before my eyes so I was ready to pounce with a diatribe on how the liberal application of lipstick to this swinish trend was doing no good and NASA should know better than to distort a disturbing development this way.

After all, my cynical narrative fit the current circumstances perfectly. In the past year alone, there have been at least 18 clench-worthy near-collisions (and at least one in which contact was made) between commercial aircraft. Some have been truly harrowing and while alert crews and controllers saved the day in many of them, only blind luck was at work in a few.

Then there are the tales of pilots going, well, frankly, crazy in the flight deck. From pulling the fire suppression handles to intentionally crashing an airplane to allegedly threatening gun violence, it’s not been an inspiring year for the profession.

Problems with airplanes have also been top of mind. Manufacturing and performance issues with all kinds of aircraft have been in the news in the past year. Deliveries of several types have been stopped to fix flaws and engines are being removed to fix design or build problems. At times it seems the whole system is falling apart around us.

The FAA and NTSB have launched some very public efforts to address the issues. From pilot mental health to air traffic controller fatigue, studies, committees and task forces abound.

And yet we carry on. More passengers than ever are flying, more airplanes are being built and so far so good. It looks like we’ll record another fatality-free year in airline operations and the overall safety record for general aviation is generally trending down. Surely the end of this charmed existence must be near and surely NASA should know better than to whitewash the situation. High dudgeon seemed in order.

But I thought maybe I should ask first.

So I harnessed the power of AVweb to take the temperature of those doing the flying with a simple question of the week: Do you feel safe in the air?

The results were illuminating. Those who reported feeling as safe or even safer outnumbered those who were not feeling that way by three to one. Now, we’ve never claimed that our little weekly poll is scientific but this result would appear to be outside the margin of error.

How to explain it? I think it’s a fact that all pilots these days are better trained and have access to truly remarkable technology to find their way, stay out of the way of others and monitor the health of their aircraft. They are also bombarded with opportunities to learn about best practices in every aspect of their profession/vocation. Could it be that they really are so engaged and willing to spread the safety message that they’re moving the needle meaningfully in areas like ASRS?

Lacking any other explanation, I think I have to give this one to NASA with a healthy knock on wood and the fervent hope that it continues.

All the best for a safe, happy and healthy holiday season to all of our readers and advertisers and here’s to an even better New Year.


Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. Ignorance is bliss?
    I’d like to see a survey done that is only open to ATC, pilots flying professionally and A&Ps that turn wrenches for a living.

  2. Who cares if we feel safe or not. Do we take off with the fuel selector in the off position or control locks left in because we are too complacent to be bothered with a checklist? Do we take off into weather we hope the autopilot can handle and realize too late that it can’t? Do we establish personal minimums based on “ I got away with it before and nothing happened”? If that makes us feel safe then maybe Sportys needs to start carrying rabbits foot keychains because we are substituting luck for safety.

  3. My answer to the poll reflected my practice of never flying commercial and avoiding towered airports as much as possible, meaning almost entirely. Maybe others’ answers reflect similar practices. It could have skewed the poll results. I agree with KP, run a poll for professionals only to get a more focused read on the issue as it exists in the most heavily systematized area of aviation.

  4. I always felt safe flying both in the Navy and with the airlines in my 40 years on the job, mainly due to the excellent support I had from ATC, Dispatch, maintenance and my crew. I was bailed out more times than I’d like to admit by others. I had, and still have a high level of trust in the flying machines built by Boeing, Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas, Airbus and the rest. It’s pretty amazing that this industry provides such a safe product for the consumer given what it’s up against and the elements it has to perform in. Humans can do amazing things when they work together.

  5. I’m embarrassed that I don’t know what “ARSA” stands for. I googled it and found 68 different meanings, none of which have to do with aviation or safety. Might it be some new replacement for “ASRS”—Aviation Safety Reporting System? Someone help me out here.

  6. People feel safer because flying is safer. Pilots hear more about accidents and near misses largely due to the widespread media coverage now bombarding us but I think one positive benefit is that raises our safety awareness. Could it be that our safety culture is improving because of a greater awareness by pilots of the mistakes of others and how to avoid making the same ones themselves. The NASA ASRS system promotes an honest safety culture that encourages the reporting of errors or near misses without the fear of punishment. To err is to be human and by acknowledging that, the ASRS system creates an environment where pilots can learn from each other. An interesting survey question would be to ask pilots what percentage of the flights that they have flown did not involve an error or minor violation of some sort.

  7. Like most, my answer was “as safe as ever”, which is, ahem, a safe answer with regard to my own practices. Had “safe enough” been offered that would have been fine too.

    Let’s face it, safety perception is a personal thing, with extremes on both ends. What we do is make one of those fuzzy and oh-so-analog mental “calculations” that incorporate fact and feeling. Beyond judicious consideration of the fact that those on the reckless end of the spectrum don’t fare as well statistically, who is to say what magic point on the bell curve we should all be at?

  8. Billions and billions of cameras everywhere. Aviation is much safer now then ever but, now most every moment is recorded. Pilots are filing ASRS forms because they know they’ve been recorded and they don’t want the wrath of the FAA to come down on them.

    You can’t compare compass dead reckoning with today’s gps moving map.

  9. Better trained? With general aviation a shadow of it once was where is the replacement ladder of experience. I don’t feel safer in an airliner, and seeing a Challenger crew crash trying to make a suicidal circling approach into Truckee doesn’t help either.

  10. You can’t manage what you are not measuring. Robust Hazard/incident reporting is the heart of a safety program that is working.

  11. Like everything else, the devil is in the details. Someone needs to analyze all those 100,000 reports and determine if there are any trends. (Presumably someone at NASA does.) What percent of the reports are of serious incidents, and how many are simply, “we got 200 feet off our assigned altitude…”?

  12. “Now, we’ve never claimed that our little weekly poll is scientific but this result would appear to be outside the margin of error.”

    The problem isn’t whether the result is outside (or not outside) the margin of error. The problem is that the readers who completed the weekly poll may have provided responses that differ from the responses of those who did not complete the survey (if they had completed it).

    This threat to the validity of survey data is the problem of generalizability, and it is unavoidable when data are collected from a sample of convenience. The extent to which this problem affects the results of your little weekly poll is entirely unknown.

  13. NASA makes a valid point here. Merely knowing that the ASRS program exists is a positive indicator for any pilot, professional or non- professional. Actually using the ASRS program whether for self-serving “get out of jail” efforts or better yet to impart lessons learned in the line of duty is yet a notch above merely knowing of its existence. Either way, NASA is justified in its “gushy announcement” that ASRS program statistics are a sign of success. Reporting safety concerns whether it amounts to turning oneself in out of a sense of self preservation or, more nobly, reporting hazardous systemic conditions for the common good is an integral part of a just safety culture. Kudos to NASA.

    On a more general note, I’m old enough, and Russ I believe you are too to realize that though our national institutions are far from perfect, most of them serve us better than if they had never existed. I’m frankly weary of the gratuitous trashing of our national institutions, as imperfect as they are, which have benefitted the common good more during my entire professional lifetime than if they had never existed.

  14. I wouldn’t say I feel more or less safe… but as I’ve gotten older I’m definitely more aware and appreciative of the associated risks. Between dealing with the technical/operational side in my day job, and just maturing and being more aware as a private pilot, I look back on my early 20s (when I was flying a lot) and think “God, how naive I was…” It’s definitely put a new light on things as I’m preparing to (finally!) finish my RV and start flying it.

    I do wonder, though, if the FAA is ever going to look at the ASRS and accident reports and start to really focus on “what can we do about the things actually causing accidents?” instead of spending billions of dollars and man-hours chasing theoretical medical bogeymen…

    • AMEN!

      One must wonder–if aviation medicals were eliminated–or applied only to Part 121 or Part 135 operators–what would the net effect be on pilot incapacitation?

      Example: For the money spent on aviation medicals EVERY YEAR, FAA could fund a full-capacity GPS on every GA airplane–and the next year, a full ADS-B system–and the next, a capable autopilot…………

      Compare the relative cost of complying with aviation medicals, vs. Controlled Flight Into Terrain, for example. The FAA is firmly rooted into 100-year-old regulations and technology.

      • That idea already exists, at least in a partial form, Jim. It’s called Basic Med, and it has statistically shown that those pilots who have adopted the program over a traditional third class medical are no less safe, or create no more of an accident potential than any other pilot. The FAA grudgingly acknowledges that, but stubbornly refuses to drop the third class medical. Your suggestion has merit, but is far to logical for a government agency to accept.

  15. I fly gliders, balloons, and ultralights (in addition to turbine aircraft. Even though these “sport” aircraft do not require medical, they do an excellent job of self-policing—I would guess that instances of pilot incapacitation is little (if ANY) different than for holders of medical certificates—though these certificates tend to draw those who don’t want to put up with the FAA requirements to keep a valid medical—it puts the lie to the “more regulation equals better safety” canard.

    One would THINK that the FAA would have comparable data between pilots WITH medicalS and those WITHOUT—but in 62 years of flying (and 52 years in the FBO business)—I’ve never seen a comparison.

    I’m not advocating doing away with medicalS entirely—only that I would like to see the evidence that aviation medicals produce a significant safety improvement in non-commercial aviation.

  16. Safe or safer compared to what? Flying is risky. So is riding a motorcycle. So is driving a car. So is playing an active sport if you are mainly a weekend warrior… or not. We pre-flight (or should!), we post-flight (or should!), we pass the IMSAFE and PAVE guidelines, we use checklists, we follow the FARs, we read (and sometimes submit) ASRS reports. And yet, here I am at 2000 ft. AGL traveling 100 to ? knots with nothing but air beneath me in a machine built by humans, with a human in charge of flying the airplane. There are usually other airplanes around, perhaps showing up on ADS-B, perhaps sighted by me or my students… and perhaps not. It’s even more concerning when the human in the left seat is a student (er… learner?) who may think he or she has already mastered the laws of nature, but doesn’t know enough to appreciate their own ignorance. If you’ve instructed, you have stories…

    Flying has been and always will be risky. We do the best we can to minimize the risk, but I’ll go along with Ernest K. Gann’s philosophy. As I approach 70, it’s getting more tough for me to justify the risks. I’ll renew my CFI one more time and then re-evaluate… constantly.

  17. Russ, I agree with the theme I’m seeing in other comments: “Do we feel safer?” and “Why is NASA getting far more ASRS reports?” are such different questions it’s hard to find any meaningful connection between them.

    “Do we feel safer” has to do with issues like our feelings, how well-informed we are, the actual facts underlying our information (to the extent that we are informed), how much we are influenced by reporting bias in press and YouTube reports, whether we think we are seeing reporting bias, wishful thinking, etc., etc., etc.

    “Why is NASA getting far more ASRS reports?” has to do with awareness of the ASRS system (which may be due to an ASRS-awareness program at one or more airlines or training programs, for example), awareness of safety issues, whether awareness of safety issues is being driven by a greater incidence of safety issues or by technology alerting us to safety issues we wouldn’t even have recognized in the past, awareness of apparent enforcement zeal (from Trent Palmer to Trevor Jacob) that increases the value of the “get out of jail” aspect of ASRS, and so on.

    The answers to one may be only distantly related to the answers to the other.

  18. The NASA comment crowing about record aviation safety reports strikes me as another government agency justifying their existence.

    What exactly does NASA do with that data? Does it collect it? Who analyzes it and reports to the public who pays for this “service”.

    I think flying is safer because the demographic that flies most skews older (like me) and is more experienced and less risk prone.

    Despite all the noise, there are still over 3 accidents/day and more than 1 fatality/day, and in the world of aviation safety, that way less than the accident rate in the 20th Century.

  19. If someone claims that they don’t feel safe in the air then maybe a bus, hitchhiking, or Amtrak would be better. As a retired A&P I remember that people are involved so perfection isn’t possible but one always shoots for excellence. Regardless of exceptions, the US system is the safest in the world and too many in this country forget that.