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These plane crash survivors and victims’ loved ones are becoming scared to fly again after years of travel. They’re not alone

By Elizabeth Wolfe, CNN

(CNN) — A sickening sense of deja vu flooded over Barb Handley and her siblings as news of the midflight blowout of an Alaska Airlines plug door – and the gaping hole it left behind – emerged in January.

Images of the refrigerator-sized void conjured up heart-wrenching memories of the death of their mother, who in 1989 was among nine passengers blown out of a United Airlines Boeing 747 when its cargo door blew open over the Pacific Ocean, taking with it a large chunk of the cabin wall.

“It felt like seeing the hole through which I was visualizing my mother being thrown out a plane,” Handley said of the Alaska Airlines blowout in January, which happened on a Boeing 737 Max 9.

Handley has flown countless times since her mother’s death and has never been able to shake her nervousness. But the January blowout – and a string of recent mishaps involving Boeing jets – has ratcheted her anxieties to new levels.

“I know my brother and my sisters feel the same way,” she said. “You wonder, ‘Has there been enough due diligence with this individual plane, with this airline, with this manufacturer?’ And those feelings are definitely heightened with the Boeing incidents.”

Though no passengers were killed during the Alaska Airlines incident, experts have said it could have been far more catastrophic. The chair of the National Transportation Safety Board has warned that “something like this can happen again.”

The two seats closest to the door plug were thankfully unoccupied, yet the blowout caused an air pressure loss severe enough to rip a boy’s shirt off and twist the seats’ metal frames toward the opening. An early assessment from the NTSB found that Boeing may have left critical bolts off the jet.

The blowout is among a handful of harrowing air travel incidents that have contributed to a growing sense of unease among some travelers, including a violent plunge that sent passengers slamming into the ceiling of a Boeing Dreamliner jet last month and a case of severe turbulence that required several people to be taken to the hospital.

A parade of less severe mishaps has also captured attention.

The Federal Aviation Administration is taking a close look at United Airlines after nearly a dozen incidents so far this year – all on Boeing jets – including a missing external panel, flames shooting from an engine after takeoff and a wheel popping off.

The string of incidents has led sisters Cara and Erin Ashcraft, who survived a fatal 1999 plane crash, to seriously second-guess air travel for the first time in years.

“We have both flown many times since the crash, but for the first time in my life, I’m actually afraid I could be in another crash again,” Cara said in response to CNN’s call for readers’ input on air travel.

The sisters were 10 and 13 years old when their plane overran a runway and crashed in Little Rock, Arkansas, killing 11 people and seriously injuring most other passengers. Both sisters recovered from serious burns from a fire that erupted during the crash and vowed not to let the terrifying incident prevent them from traveling.

“Really, the only reason we’re able to get on the flight is because we trust the thousands of people involved from the beginning – from funding and designing the plane to building it and operating it. We expect that they’ve done their jobs and that they’re putting safety first,” Cara Ashcraft told CNN.

After seeing the slew of aircraft issues and increased federal oversight, she said, “That trust gets damaged.”

‘Erosion of public trust’

More than 100 people responded to CNN’s call for reader input, and many of them detailed their burgeoning unease with air travel during the recent spate of incidents. Many said they have begun to avoid flying Boeing aircraft, in some cases rethinking their long-held loyalties to airlines with Boeing-heavy fleets.

Several said they now avoid sitting in coveted window and exit row seats out of concern for another incident like the Alaska Airlines blowout. And some expressed frustration that easing their concerns sometimes requires purchasing more costly tickets or avoiding travel altogether.

Others, however, said they are still confident in flight safety, pointing out that commercial air travel remains one of the safest modes of transportation.

The last major fatal commercial plane accident in the United States was in 2009, and between 2010 and 2022, there have been only five commercial flight accident deaths. Last year, international commercial aviation boasted a record low fatality risk, with a person needing to travel by air every day for 103,239 years on average to experience a fatal accident, according to the International Air Transport Association’s annual safety report.

But even as the risk of a commercial plane crash is low, the Ashcraft sisters and other readers expressed concern that other in-air events such as severe turbulence could be traumatizing and have already begun to chip away at their trust in air travel safety.

“I’m not saying that people should never fly again or I won’t ever fly again,” Erin Ashcraft said. “But I think that the erosion of public trust is a huge issue.”

‘I’ve never had concerns before. This is new’

Trey Smith has long relied on United Airlines for his monthly work trips out of Virginia, often catching up on sleep while in the air. But the series of incidents on United aircraft in recent months has made him increasingly restless on flights and led him to reconsider his preferred airline.

“I’ve never had concerns (about air travel safety) before. This is new,” Smith told CNN.

During recent flights, Smith said he has begun to use United’s flight-tracking app to monitor the aircraft’s path and altitude for any sign of a disturbance. He has also been delaying planning a trip with his wife and four daughters because he’s nervous about bringing his children on a plane.

“Traveling was fun once upon a time, but now it’s more it’s more scary and worrisome,” he said. “I’m not gonna lie, I pray more now before we take off and before we land.”

Smith believes airlines should disclose an aircraft’s maintenance and inspection records to travelers so they can make “an educated decision” about their flight and the aircraft.

United has made efforts to reassure passengers such as Smith after the incidents on its Boeing jets, which made up about 80% of the airline’s mainline operation fleet as of the end of last year. United CEO Scott Kirby said in a message to customers last month that the incidents “have our attention and have sharpened our focus” and that safety is “at the center of everything that we do.”

Soon after, in a memo announcing the FAA’s increased attention on the airline’s safety procedures, United told its employees, “The number of safety-related events in recent weeks have rightfully caused us to pause and evaluate whether there is anything we can and should do differently.”

A mother who feels ‘powerless’ trying to avoid Boeing

Aubrey, a mother who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and 5-year-old daughter, recognizes that air travel is still generally safe but doesn’t feel confident bringing her daughter on Boeing aircraft given years of troubling incidents, particularly on the 737 Max, which has seen two fatal crashes outside the United States since 2018.

But she said she has begun to feel “powerless” as she plans a family trip to see loved ones on the East Coast and has struggled to find a flight on non-Boeing aircraft that fits her family’s schedule and isn’t “exorbitantly expensive.”

Even if she does find a flight on an Airbus, the airline could change the aircraft model before the flight. In that case, she said, “Airlines make it so difficult and costly to change a flight that I feel we’d have no choice but to go ahead with the trip if our plane got changed to a Max at the last minute.”

“You want to be able to make a statement as a consumer that you don’t want to use a certain product, and it’s frustrating when you feel like you can’t avoid it,” said Aubrey, who asked that her last name be omitted because of privacy concerns.

Though a crash is unlikely, she is concerned for her daughter’s safety if there is a severe turbulence event such as those that have left passengers injured on flights operated by Southwest, Delta Air Lines and Hawaiian Airlines, among others.

“I hate that I’m now having to consider what type of plane it is. And I’m very resentful that I don’t feel that Boeing has shown proper remorse for the accidents. I don’t trust that they’re actually taking the steps necessary to make this safer.”

So really, how safe is it to fly?

Though flying is far safer than other modes of travel, aviation experts have mixed opinions on whether consumers have reason to be concerned.

“If you look at the numbers, you’re more at risk to have an accident driving to the airport than you are flying at 38,000 feet. I tell people, if you make it to your flight, the most hazardous part of your day is actually behind you,” Anthony Brickhouse, a professor of aviation safety at Florida’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, told CNN last month.

Passengers, he added, should focus less on the aircraft they’re boarding and more on making sure they comply with safety procedures on board.

The Alaska Airlines Max 9 blowout is being investigated by the US Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, Brickhouse noted. The fact that the aircraft is back in the air means they have completed whatever inspections were necessary to ensure it is as safe as possible, he said.

Despite the statistics, Ed Pierson, the director of the Foundation for Aviation Safety and a harsh critic of Boeing, told CNN previously that he won’t fly on the Boeing 737 Max out of concern over the aircraft manufacturer’s quality control standards. However, other aircraft – even older Boeing models – aren’t off limits.

“Taking the Max out of the equation, (flying has) been proven to be pretty darn safe,” he said last month.

Pierson is wary of attitudes around the apparent safety of American air travel, he said. Such thinking may prevent necessary improvements from being made.

“There’s a sense of overconfidence,” he said. “The gold standard is melting down, because we continue to try to downplay everything and talk about how safe the system is. That’s not the right mindset. That’s the mindset that gets people killed.”

Even as the US commercial aviation industry has gone more than a decade without a major fatal crash, there have been narrowly averted disasters on the ground.

In July 2017, an Air Canada jet piloted by a captain who had been awake for more than 19 hours nearly landed on a taxiway at San Francisco International Airport where three wide-body jets filled with passengers were waiting to take off. The NTSB later said more than 1,000 people on the four planes might have died had the plane not diverted at the last moment.

Though Brickhouse is fairly confident in the aviation system’s safety, he didn’t dismiss those who are fearful or who might want to avoid aircraft such as the 737 Max, noting he has his own concerns about things such as the number of narrowly avoided accidents at the nation’s airports.

“I don’t believe in luck, but we are fortunate that these incidents did not turn into disasters,” he said. “When you have a trend that keeps occurring, you need to focus on fixing it.”

CNN’s Chris Isidore and Jacopo Prisco contributed to this report.

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