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Opinion We must not forget all the measures that keep passenger planes safe

Howard Green is the author of three bestsellers. His most recent is Railroader: The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison.

Few news items stoke public fear like a deadly plane crash. The tragic loss of 157 lives, including 18 Canadians, in the Ethiopian Airlines flight crash on Sunday hits hard. Because the same type of plane was involved in the seemingly similar Lion Air crash in Indonesia less than five months before, attention is fixated on that aircraft, the Boeing 737 Max 8. The plane, which is part of Canadian airline fleets, is now grounded in many countries including Canada and the United States.

Certainly, with the loss of a combined 346 lives and destruction of two brand-new passenger jets (with some 5,000 ordered globally), concern is warranted about the plane, the training of crews and other complex factors.

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With the 737 Max 8 in focus, history may be rhyming. In the 1970s, another passenger jet came in for heavy public circumspection, and for a time, the media coverage was close to fearmongering, although nothing like the kind of feeding frenzy that often occurs today.

The DC-10, a wide-bodied jet, was involved in two high-profile tragedies: a 1974 Turkish Airlines accident near Paris that occurred after a cargo door opened in flight, resulting in a crash and the death of 346 people; and in 1979, an American Airlines DC-10 crash in Chicago that killed 273 after an engine separated from the wing while the plane was taking off. Design changes were made after the Paris crash. After the Chicago accident, the DC-10 was grounded for more than a month. The investigation ultimately pointed to maintenance issues.

At the time, there was significant public concern about the aircraft. As one air-crash investigator told me more than 10 years later, no aircraft in history had been inspected as microscopically as the DC-10. But it went on to fly passengers for many years, including at the former Canadian Pacific Air Lines. FedEx continues to fly the plane, retrofitted and renamed the MD-10 (MD for McDonnell Douglas, bought by Boeing).

The risk, though, in today’s point-the-finger mediasphere is a hang ‘em verdict before evidence has been presented. Finding out why a plane crashed requires exhaustive investigation, often taking months, if not years. Fortunately, the findings of these probes have led to an admirable safety record for aviation. Decades ago, many more people were killed in commercial air disasters. Public confidence in flying exists because the industry and regulators have learned from mistakes.

Having been inside a major air-crash investigation (Swissair 111) to document the process exclusively for CBC, Swiss national television and PBS, it was an education to witness the number of stories published or broadcast by respected media outlets that were either misleading or wrong, likely unintentionally. Everyone wants easy answers and someone to blame, so early versions of coverage with grabby headlines get stuck in the minds of the public and are hard to dislodge.

In the case of Swissair 111, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Nova Scotia in September, 1998, there was a catastrophic fire on board. But what was the chain of events that led to that fire, the loss of the aircraft and the deaths of 229 people? Early reporting pointed to the insulation on wires associated with the in-flight entertainment system (IFEN). Headlines about wiring and the IFEN dominated coverage for some time.

While both – and many other factors – were scrutinized over four years, the key safety finding turned out to be the unexpected flammability of the cover material on insulation blankets inserted between the outer skin and interior wall of the aircraft. As a result of the investigation, thousands of passenger planes around the world had their insulation blankets removed and replaced with non-flammable ones. Sadly, it required a loss of life to save other lives.

The truth is, passenger planes are machines. They’re not perfect, nor are their operators or their regulators. As with anything, when advances are made, unintended consequences can occur. But witnessing a complex investigation up-close made me feel better about flying, knowing what goes into keeping it safe.

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