The bad news for Boeing continues: A few days ago, the US Department of Justice announced that it was investigating criminal proceedings against the aircraft manufacturing giant in connection with two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019 with a total of 346 deaths. The company violated obligations under an agreement that shielded Boeing from criminal prosecution over the crashes, the ministry said in a letter Tuesday. Boeing denies the allegations.

The news once again comes at an inopportune time for the former model company: The 737 Max aircraft lost approval almost worldwide after the crashes and had to remain on the ground for a long time. Boeing made improvements and the model was only allowed to take off again after numerous tests and checks. In January of this year there was another near disaster: a fuselage fragment broke out of a 737-9 Max of the US airline Alaska Airlines shortly after take-off in January. It just so happened that the seats near the hole were unoccupied. Because the aircraft was at a relatively low altitude, no one was seriously injured (you can read more about the problems at Boeing here).

The incidents received a lot of attention around the world and may have raised the question in many people’s minds: Should I still get on a plane? Specifically one from Boeing?

So what about safety on passenger flights? Aircraft manufacturer Airbus – just ahead of Boeing, the world market leader – carried out an evaluation and published the results in February 2024. The data shows: The number of passenger flights continued to rise worldwide in the period examined from 1958 to 2023 and only fell sharply during the corona pandemic from 2020 onwards.

The number of fatal accidents involving passenger jets, however, has continued to fall during this time, as the graphic shows:

For the evaluation, official data from aviation authorities were evaluated, as well as data from the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization, the aviation analysis company Cirium and self-collected figures from the Airbus databases. Flights of jet aircraft from 16 Western aircraft manufacturers (including Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, Embraer, Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas) with a capacity of more than 40 passengers were examined. Business jets were not taken into account. Passenger jets that were not manufactured in the West were also left out because the required information was not available. The only exception is the Russian Sukhoi Superjet, which was also included in the consideration.

Safety has always been not only the top priority, but also the most important image factor in civil aviation. This is not surprising in an industry that sends multi-ton machines full of people and highly explosive fuel to thousands of meters in the air. The safety regulations are correspondingly strict and, accordingly, technical developments are always designed to improve safety and minimize risks. In 2023 there was zero for the first time: According to the report, not a single fatal accident occurred with any of the machines examined last year, which is primarily a result of the technical evolution of aircraft.

Airbus divides its passenger jets into four generations, which have become increasingly technically sophisticated and therefore safer. Although there were early autopilot systems in the first generation, the pilots largely had to fly manually and make do with analog instruments. The fly-by-wire system has been around since the fourth and most modern generation to date. The control is no longer carried out hydraulically and using a control horn, but electronically with so-called sidesticks and monitored by a computer.

The gallery below shows how cockpits have developed over the years, which systems have been added and in which generation the most accidents occurred.

The fourth generation is increasingly taking over while the more accident-prone predecessors are retired. The development in fatal accidents reads analogously. And with regard to total losses, no incident was recorded for the machines examined in 2023:

Flying, it seems, has become technically and statistically safer over the decades. How do the Boeing incidents with the relatively new 737 Max fit into the picture? Although the model has only been delivered since 2017, it is a further development of the original design, which is why Airbus counts it as the third generation in its report. “If you look at the Boeing 737, which continues to sell well, you basically see a classic car,” writes a captain on the specialist portal “Airliners”. The Max model, like other modern jets, received software to support the pilots. However, this intervened in the controls more than expected and was therefore the trigger for the crashes in 2018 and 2019, as investigations showed. When the type was certified by US authorities, Boeing also declared special training for the software to be unnecessary. In the incident in January 2024, four bolts were apparently missing from the torn-off fuselage part.

In addition to the incidents, there were further breakdowns and, above all, a lot of negative press. All incidents that do not contribute to regaining trust in Boeing and the broken down 737 Max plane. However, the group is currently under stricter scrutiny from the authorities when it comes to security. From a purely statistical perspective – and this also applies to Boeing aircraft – flying is probably safer today than ever before.

Quellen: Airbus, “Airliners”, “Seattle Times”