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Just How Safe Are Commercial Airplanes?

Craig McClellan

It is a fair question to ask. When we step into a plane we are putting our lives in the hands of the pilots. And pilots, while highly trained, rely largely on technology to actually fly the plane. So what happens when that technology fails?

The consequences can be disastrous.

Within in a minute of launching into the air, the pilots of United Flight 731 suddenly looked at each. All of the screens on their control panel were blank. Their radios were dead. They had no navigational information, no visibility to the planes around them and no way of communicating with the air traffic controllers on the ground. They were able to successfully turn the flight around and land a few minutes later at the airport they took off from.

But had it not been such a clear day with good weather, the chances of an imminent plane crash would be much higher. The pilots themselves noted that if there had been any type of weather that day, they likely would not have landed the plane safely.

And, perhaps most alarming is that such an electrical failure in the cockpit is not unheard of. In fact, according to the Associated Press, the Airbus A320 family of aircraft have a substantial record of such technological problems. More than 50 incidents have been reported since the planes were first placed into service almost 20 years ago.

In 2010, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an order that all U.S. airlines have to make sure their Airbus jet models have been modified by 2014 to make sure that electrical problems do not occur. But the real question is, if these planes have been in service for over two decades and the problems have been reported over the years, why did it take so long for a federal agency to step in and take action? And even then, not all of the planes have been fixed yet, so are the airlines gambling with their passengers' safety each time they step onto one of these Airbuses?

Where is the responsibility when an airplane is defectively designed? And how long before people are actually injured as a result of the defective electronics?