Three near-misses by commercial airplanes in the past month may have some passengers nervous about flying, but the odds of staying safe still favor flying over driving, boating or taking a train.
Federal Aviation Administration officials announced that they are investigating a near-miss by two United Airlines jets at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport on May 9. The aircraft came within less than a mile of each other, and 400 feet in altitude.
A second incident at Newark Liberty International Airport on April 24 involved a commuter plane and a United Boeing 737 that just missed each other while one was landing and the other taxiing on the runway.
There were 4,394 near-misses in the year ending Sept. 1, 2012, according to an FAA report reported by CNN. Forty-one incidents were characterized as "high-risk events." None resulted in accidents. In the year ending Sept. 1, 2011, there were 1,895 such incidents, according to the FAA.
Some passengers note, however, that not all near-misses are quickly reported. Kevin Townsend was on a United Boeing 757 flight returning from Hawaii to California on April 25 when his airplane narrowly averted a head-on collision with a USAirways jet at 33,000 feet.
"I felt my body float upwards and strain against my seatbelt," Townsend wrote about his experience on the website Medium. "Passengers around me screamed. There was a loud crash in the back -- a coffeepot clattering to the floor and tumbling down the aisle. Our tray tables began rattling in unison as the 757 strained through the kind of maneuver meant more for a fighter jet."
Townsend, an economic analyst from San Francisco and a blogger, discovered that his flight descended 600 feet in a few seconds to avoid a collision. He also found out that the incident wasn't reported by either pilots or air traffic controllers to federal safety officials for at least two weeks. Still, he's not afraid of flying.
"I'm not hesitant to get on another plane," Townsend told Discovery News. "This was a rare event. But I felt that the (FAA) system wasn't robust. They don't seem to take near-misses as seriously as they should."
Townsend wonders if the frequency of near-misses is underreported and whether something needs to be done about it. FAA officials could not be reached Friday for comment.
One aviation expert said the air traffic system worked as it should in the Hawaii near-miss. John Hansman, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, noted that even though the air traffic controller made a human error by putting both planes in the same flight path, an on-board automated system alerted both pilots -- telling one to dive and one to climb. The Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) warns planes automatically when they get too close for comfort -- the near-miss.
"One person's near-miss is another person's normal operation," said Hansman, who has conducted studies on collision avoidance systems for the FAA. "They are not that common."
Hansman said a near-miss occurs when two planes get within 3 miles of each other and less than 1,000 feet. A near-collision happens within 1 mile or 500 feet elevation.
Just to put the safety numbers in perspective, more than 33,000 Americans died in traffic vehicle accidents in 2012. That compares to 803 who died on trains; 706 from boating accidents; and 449 in small aircraft (general aviation), according to the National Transportation Safety Board. There hasn't been a fatal commercial airline fatality in the United States since 2009.
Worldwide, there were more than 36.4 million airplane flights in 2013, with only 16 fatal crashes, according to the International Air Transport Association.
Flying, said IATA spokesman Perry Flint, "is incredibly safe."