Few aspects of air travel seem to be getting better, but the most important one has become dramatically better: safety.
The rate of fatal airline crashes in the United States has fallen by 65 percent over the past decade. The rate has gone from one fatal crash for roughly every 2 million departures to one in every 4.5 million departures, even as air traffic continues to increase.
As a result of a challenge from the White House 10 years ago, aviation-safety experts began looking for ways to bring down the fatality rate. Technology has played a major role. Instrumentation is better and engines are more dependable. Rather than waiting until a crash happens and then analyzing its causes, airlines have been studying data from safe flights to try to identify and solve problems before they cause a crash.
Some experts worry less about crashes in midair than about crashes on or near the ground. The radar that tracks airplanes is outdated, and a new satellite-based system is on the drawing board that will help to control traffic. But it will cost billions of dollars, and airlines are arguing over who will pay for it.
The airline industry´s progress on safety is laudable, and everyone involved deserves praise. But the conflict between the FAA and the air-traffic controllers is worrisome. Controllers are a vital cog in the system, and no air traveler wants to worry about weaknesses there.