Turbulence in the Airline Industry Through the Years

Pan Am limped along until 1991 when it declared bankruptcy and sold off its assets. But let's talk about something more pleasant: There hasn't been a successful terror incident on a U.S. aircraft in the past decade. Say what you will about the TSA, but I believe the agency has helped at least a little in keeping us safe, along with other government mandates such as locked doors on airplanes. The biggest help of all? Passenger awareness: We are the ones who truly make us safer in the skies (and thanks again to the folks who tackled and took down the Underwear Bomber).

Sadly, you don't need terrorists to get an airline in trouble; all that's required is mechanical problems, pilot error, controller miscommunication, bad weather or any combination thereof. I've heard of no maintenance difficulties reported by either the KLM 747 or the Pan Am 747 that smacked together on the Canary Islands' Tenerife back in 1977 but the rest of the ingredients for disaster were in place.

The result: the worst aviation disaster in history, which killed 583 people. Plus another blow for the already fading Pan Am, and it sure didn't do KLM any good. The latter ultimately merged with Air France in 2004.

But don't be afraid to fly. You probably already know it's safer than driving, but did you also know that the accident rate for 2011 (latest figures available for Western-built aircraft) was the lowest in aviation history? It bested the figures for 2010, which had previously held the best safety record ever. Do I have to say it? Flying is safe.

Of course, Mother Nature sometimes makes things interesting. I've written about the damage and injuries extreme turbulence can cause, but airlines sometimes run into unexpected trouble like the craziness that was Eyjafjallajokull. That's the Iceland volcano that began erupting in April of 2010 and wound up creating the worst air travel disruption since World War II, shutting down most of Europe's largest airports and stranding thousands of travelers around the world.

It obviously hurt airlines, too, although Europe's discounter Ryanair tried to avoid paying passengers for hotels and such. Said its colorful CEO Michael O'Leary, "Why exactly are the airlines expected to be reimbursing people's hotels, meals and everything else when the governments are the ones who made a balls of this?"

Even more unpredictable than nature, and sometime worse for airlines, is labor strife. Never mind the current situation with American, go back to 1998 when Northwest Airlines and its pilots couldn't come to terms: The carrier had to quit flying for two whole weeks. Or go back just two years, when Spirit Airlines appeared to laugh off threats from its pilots to take to the picket lines; headlines had Spirit executives saying, "We'll keep flying." They didn't. Talks quickly resumed.

By the way, American says it's sorry for any inconvenience due to its delayed and canceled flights and says it's taking steps to ease the impact - by cutting its flight schedule.

The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.

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