Are Boeing plane problems real or a function of journalism?

Noticing more problems with Boeing planes doesn’t mean there are actually more problems with aviation safety.

An orange metal platform stands in front of a plastic-covered hole in the side of a plane.
Plastic covers the exterior of the fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 Boeing 737-9 MAX on January 7, 2024, in Portland, Oregon. 
Getty Images

Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

Is it just me, or does it seem like a lot of bad things keep happening to Boeing airplanes lately?

Ever since the shocking January 5 incident in which a door plug fell out of a Boeing 737 Max 9 in midair, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the plane, many fliers have been jumpy. Their fears have been fueled by news sites that have been serving up incident after incident: a Boeing 737 Max 8 sliding off the runway in Houston, another 737 in Houston making an emergency return after flames were spotted spewing out of an engine, yet another in Newark reporting stuck rudder pedals, a Boeing 777 losing a tire shortly after takeoff from San Francisco, a 777 making an emergency landing in Los Angeles with a suspected mechanical issue. And so on and so on.

So what’s actually happening? Are more planes having incidents than ever before? Or are we just hearing about more incidents?

It’s mostly the latter. Minor aviation incidents with few or no injuries — like those listed above — happen constantly. They just don’t make the news. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates aviation incidents and accidents, lists 12 incidents on commercial aircraft in the United States so far this year. Last year, during the same time period, there were 13 such incidents.

From 2010 to 2023, there were on average 36 incidents a year. We’re about a third of the way through the year, so we’re having a more or less totally mundane year, as far as the rate of incidents serious enough to warrant an NTSB investigation goes.

For journalists, is the customer always right?

So things aren’t going wrong on planes at an unusual rate — you’re hearing about it at an unusual rate because, ever since the January incident, journalists are paying much more attention and writing stories about relatively minor plane incidents, and people are nervous about planes and are eager to read stories about such incidents.

Various minor issues, from engine trouble to maintenance issues, were always happening under the radar but weren’t newsworthy; now, the same incidents are news, especially if they happen on a Boeing (and given that almost half of the US commercial fleet is made by Boeing, they often do).

Here’s the question I struggle with as a journalist: Do we have some responsibility not to write such stories?

Journalists take accuracy very seriously. Every journalist I know works very hard not to publish a story that’s wrong — and if they did, they’d feel obliged to issue a correction.

But it’s much less clear what our obligations are with stories that are completely true, and about a subject readers want to read about, but that paint for those readers a misleading picture of the world.

I think most people would agree it would be unethical to systematically report only on lurid crimes committed by one racial group and ignore those same crimes when the perpetrator is of a different background, or to report the evidence for a claim and not bother reporting the similarly credible evidence that it’s false.

But journalism intrinsically involves judgments about what is newsworthy. Do minor incidents become newsworthy simply because we’re all on the lookout for major ones? Is it reasonable to expect everyone to wait months until the data is in on whether there’s a trend, when readers want information sooner than that — and will reward media sites that provide it?

I tend to think that journalists (and, for that matter, all people) have a duty not just to tell the truth but to provide enough context with the truth that readers overall come away more informed, not less informed. And I think that a sudden surge in reporting on minor airplane incidents can paradoxically end up leaving readers less informed. Their misconceptions aren’t free of consequences, either — when people choose to drive instead of fly because they fear flying, they are probably more likely to die.

So I think that, ideally, coverage would steer away from writing about routine, boring aviation events — or would at least give readers context on how routine and boring these events are.

An accurate aviation story

“Three million people flew in and out of US airports today, and none of them died except of natural causes” isn’t a conventional news story, but it’s factual — and worth keeping in mind.

Planes sometimes lose a tire and still land safely with no injuries. They sometimes get a puzzling computer warning and have to land at the nearest airport — safely. An engine goes out sometimes, and the plane still lands — safely.

Every once in a while, you have an incident like the one last December in which two American Airlines airplanes had emergencies over Phoenix at the exact same time, one suffering a failure of its flaps system and one a problem with its engine — and everyone involved arrives safely, with no injuries.

And while the January door plug incident revealed some genuine and glaring failures in processes at Boeing, it’s really hard to overstate how safe aviation is. In all of the incidents involving regularly scheduled US commercial aircraft over the 15 years from 2010 to 2024, there have been two passenger fatalities — in about 8.75 trillion revenue passenger miles. That’s a safety record of about one or two passenger fatalities per light-year traveled.

There are plenty of stories to be reported about the state of the US aviation industry: how it got that breathtaking safety record, whether Boeing is now endangering it (as my colleague Whizy Kim wrote this week), and whether we’ve learned the lessons of previous eras when shoddy maintenance practices and cost-cutting really did bring down planes regularly in the US. But writers should stop writing — and you should stop clicking — stories about minor things going wrong on individual 737s.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here!


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