Air Taxi Lessons for Boeing 787 Dreamliner

Posted by William Herp on Tue, Jan 29, 2013

Aviation is the safest mode of transportation. Full Stop.

Now, if you’ve been reading (and believing?) the headlines and newspaper stories, or listening to the breathless TV reports about the problems with Boeing’s cutting edge new widebody, the 787 Dreamliner, you might find my assertion about aviation safety to be incongruous. But as the sage philosopher, Bill Murray, so eloquently put it in the movie Stripes (filmed in my hometown of Louisville btw) “That’s the facts, Jack.”  That, and "Lighten up, Francis."

No company providing air transportation services acts or thinks cavalierly about safety. Not United or Delta, the world’s two largest airlines. Not AirSeychelles, which with two jets likes to bill itself as the world’s smallest airline. And certainly not my company, Linear Air, the nation’s most successful on-demand air taxi and jet charter company.

Similarly, no aircraft manufacturer, whether it’s the big boys like Boeing and Airbus, or smaller airplane makers like Cessna and Piper, or even new-age makers of Technically Advanced Aircraft like the Eclipse Very Light Jets and Cirrus that fly as Linear Air taxis, can afford to take the even slightest shortcut in designing, developing and manufacturing any aircraft. One incident or accident attributed to a lack of diligence through that entire process is enough to bring any of those companies to their knees.

That – along with the dedication of hundreds of thousands of professional engineers, designers, assemblers, mechanics, pilots, logisticians and other aviation industry workers – is why aviation is so incredibly safe, despite what you may think based on the recent Dreamlinerreporting. Their combined work has produced an amazing record of success and safety. How amazing? Glad you asked.

The odds of any one person being involved in a passenger airline accident in the United States or aboard a U.S.-based aircraft flying outside the country are roughly 1-in-4.4 million. Meanwhile, your odds of a car accident in the United States in any given year are just shy of 1-in-6,500. You can do the math to get the actual statistical difference, but in rough terms flying in a plane is about 1,000 times safer than driving or riding in a car.  And that doesn't even account for injuries, which happen in much greater numbers in automobiles.

Even if you think unconventionally about such things, flying remains far safer than driving. In the wildly popular book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, the authors look at the “plane vs. car” equation by asking “What’s the chance of death in a ground vehicle or airplane based on the number of accidents per hour of human travel, or per kilometer traveled?” The more conventional way of looking at this equation (which yields the results noted in the paragraph above) is to compare accidents per trip.

Nevertheless, Levitt and Dubner concluded that even when using their alternate methodologies, flying still comes out statistically waaay safer than driving – but only by a factor of about 10, instead of 1,000.

So what are we to make of the recent problems with the 787?

First, most of them have been minor issues common to all newly introduced aircraft that require new ground handling and service procedures, and that have new systems and technologies incorporated into them. In the industry these are referred to as “teething problems,” and have more to do with the learning curve for the humans flying, maintaining, servicing and handling these new aircraft than any actual “problems” with the aircraft.  And when (as in in the case of the 787’s now well-known issue with overheating batteries that can cause smoke or even catch fire) the issues are directly related to a system failure, the fact that the problems get discovered and the planes flown back for maintenance without incident speaks volumes about the huge margins of safety monitoring and redundancy built into all modern aircraft. 

The good news in the case of the 787 – and in the case of other advanced new aircraft designs like the Airbus A380 – is that the glitches they’ve experienced are things that they became aware of very early on because of sophisticated and highly redundant design of the monitoring systems onboard all modern aircraft. It’s a result of these monitoring systems that we know about these things before something goes really wrong. So actually, all these news reports about the 787 are an indication of how well-designed it really is. The professionals were able to discover the problems before something bad happened.

Now, you may wonder on what basis I, as head of company that flies a relatively small number of air-taxi aircraft can speak in defense of the giant 787?  Well, we operate the most modern and high-tech aircraft available for air-taxi operations – planes that use the latest in avionics and engine and control and electrical systems, and similar lightweight carbon fiber materials and new age construction processes and sophisticated systems monitoring capability, and I can personally vouch for the quality and safety of these new aircraft designs. The Federal Aviation Administration’s processes and standards for reviewing and certifying them are extraordinarily tough and exacting. Aircraft manufacturers spend huge fortunes just getting their planes certified. And the aircraft operators – whether they’re huge airlines or small operators like Linear Air – spend only somewhat smaller fortunes being certified to operate them.

And if that wasn’t enough to ensure safe operation of modern aircraft, the investors and financing companies that provide the capital needed to design, build, and purchase these planes, have so much invested in them that they can’t afford for anyone to cut corners. These planes earn profits for those who risk capital on them only over the long haul.  Given the long-term financial risk involved, there is enormous pressure NOT to cut corners on their design or safety. All it takes is one accident attributed to corner-cutting or inattention to safety for an entire aircraft program to be scuttled and hundreds of millions of invested dollars to be lost.

True, I can’t personally vouch for the 787 because I’ve not been involved with it. But I know how our Eclipse Jets, which pioneered many of the new technologies and systems used in the 787, have performed over the last decade. The worldwide fleet of Eclipse Jets have racked up about 100,000 hours of service now, and there have been no – ZERO – significant incidents. And that includes the safety records of the Eclipse Jets flown by private pilots and maintained privately as well as those operated and maintained by professionals to exacting commercial standards.

And the Air Force just accepted an RFI for Eclipse to replace all the Beechjet 400s they use for training and executive transport and save the taxpayers $1 billion, while the Cirrus is used at the USAF Academy to train young air corp pilots.

So, whether you’re next flight is a trans-Oceanic long-haul on a big airline’s shiny new 787, or a 400-mile day trip on one of Linear Air’s Eclipse Jets and Cirrus air-taxis from Hanscom Airport outside Boston or White Plains Westchester County and Teterboro Airports oustide NYC, travel easy in the knowledge that all these factors – advanced technology, redundancy, cutting-edge monitoring systems, tough government oversight, long-term financial investments, and professional management, maintenance and piloting – are the factors that make flying the safest mode of transportation.

See you onboard.

Tags: airlines, air taxi, boeing, 787 dreamliner

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