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Last month's Boeing 737 Max 9 incident at Alaska Airlines rekindled the narrative that flying is perilous. The facts suggest otherwise. Feb. 12 marked the 15th anniversary of the last fatal airliner crash in the U.S., when a Colgan Air ATR turboprop crashed before landing in Buffalo, N.Y. In the last decade and a half, more than 10 billion U.S. passengers have safely reached their destination (with one fatality, on Southwest in 2018).

The best air-safety metric (used by the Federal Aviation Administration and other regulators) is fatal accidents per 100,000 departures. That number is now so tiny as to be meaningless — most of us cannot interpret all those zeros to the right of the decimal point. But that statistic translates this way: If you flew one flight (one departure) a day every day of the year, it would be more than 100,000 years before you would have a 50-50 chance of dying in a plane crash. Even road warriors don't fly that much, and certainty won't live that long.

What has driven this remarkable achievement? According to aviation safety and policy experts, almost none of it results from FAA regulation. Rather, it has been five factors working together. First, better and more reliable aircraft. The most popular jet engine in the world, the CFM-56 that powers all 737s and many Airbus jets, can operate "on wing" for more than six years (35,000 hours) without being removed for maintenance. In a recent year, Delta Air Lines operated for 123 consecutive days without a single cancellation, mechanical or otherwise. Second, better weather forecasting, to avoid thunderstorms and other meteorological hazards. Fifty or more years ago, many accidents happened because pilots flew into thunderstorms. Third, better pilot training, using highly advanced simulators and other virtual technology.

Fourth, a voluntary, anonymous and non-punitive incident reporting system, called ASRS, that tracks thousands of problems and helps prevent recurrence. And fifth, excellent National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident investigations.

The latter two are really important: Every time something goes wrong, no matter how minor, flying becomes safer. Unlike many industries where denial and coverup are the norm, for a century everyone in the airline ecosystem understands something we were taught as children: We learn from mistakes. We will learn from the Alaska incident, just as we are already learning from the Japan Airlines accident in January (indeed, the miracle in Japan resulted from earlier learning about flammability, evacuation procedures and more).

Political pressure, not sensible analysis, continues to drive FAA decisions. In the wake of the 2009 Colgan Air crash, Congress mandated an FAA rule requiring pilots to have a minimum of 1,500 flight hours before entering an airliner cockpit, even though the NTSB investigation did not find inexperience as a contributing factor. The 1,500-hour rule has done nothing to improve air safety, but it has made it more expensive for young people to become licensed pilots — and we need more young pilots to replace the thousands who have retired or will retire soon.

None of this suggests that it's time to rest, to put things on autopilot. The system can and should be made yet safer. And there is plenty of low-hanging fruit that would help immensely. For example, the 2021 near-collision in Austin, Texas, could have been prevented if that busy airport had technology called ground radar — only 43 U.S. airports have this essential technology. Why? Congress did not provide the funding, and the FAA failed to ask for it.

No machine or transport system that humankind builds and operates is perfectly safe, but modern jet aircraft, including those from Boeing, come very close to being perfect.

Rob Britton is a retired airline executive and regular guest lecturer at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. He grew up in Minneapolis and began his career with Republic Airlines in 1984.