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Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.


What Could Go Right? As safe as taking a walk

On the miracle of modern aviation, from hijackings to accessibility

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas

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The miracle of modern aviation

I just returned from vacation in Kenya. On my way there, I fell into a conversation with another passenger, an American engineer, on our layover in Qatar. He was describing how pleasant flying used to be in the 1970s—delicious meals served with real utensils. Lots of space. Nothing like the cattle-herding feel of flying today, especially domestically. Apparently there was even free champagne.

I told him I would have been afraid to fly in the 70s, since flying is much safer nowadays. “I didn’t worry about crashing,” he told me. “The thing at that time was hijackings.”

I was sort of wrong, and he was right. Flying is safer today than in the 70s, but even then, fatalities from accidents were rare.

There used to be around five deaths per one million passengers in the 70s; as of 2020, it was .17 per one million

As The Progress Network (TPN) Member James Fallows—who is a private pilot in addition to a veteran journalist—put it on his Substack, “On a statistical basis, being aboard a North American or Western European airliner is about the safest thing you can do with your time, compared even with taking a walk or sitting in a chair.”

I have flight anxiety, and I tend to repeat the “safer than driving” line about flying to myself upon takeoff. I’ll switch now to “as safe as sitting,” which is what we do on planes, anyway.

And what about hijackings? “Skyjacking” was in its heyday from the 50s to the early 70s, before security checks of passengers and their luggage existed. As Hannah Ritchie wrote for Our World in Data, that changed in the United States in 1973, when screening rules were first introduced. 

Strict regulations and tight security weren’t consistently the case internationally, however, until after 9/11. At the Nairobi airport, I passed through three separate checks: one of passengers only, on the highway before entering airport grounds. One at the entrance to the airport terminal, of all bags. And one before the gates, of both passengers and carry-on items. “Things changed in Kenya after 9/11,” my driver explained.

Twenty-plus years on from the anniversary of 9/11, some speak of airport “security theater,” and frequent fliers in particular complain about the inconvenience and confusion (Laptop in or out? Shoes on or off? Liquids in a plastic baggie?). But these changes—and others, like stronger cockpit doors—have worked, Ritchie points out in her summary.

Skyjackings and their associated fatalities have all but disappeared. Since 9/11, the highest number of hijackings in a year has been six. Five people total have died.

This isn’t to forgive the modern aviation industry its ills. Sometimes it feels like Delta is trying to starve you into submission. The tall guy next to me on one of my Qatar Airways flights had his knees jammed into the seat in front of him. Everyone has experienced or heard horror stories about being bumped from flights and offered pittance in return, or monster delays. I returned to Athens on Tuesday—but my bag didn’t. 

From a safety perspective, though, the industry is extremely impressive. In the same article cited above, Fallows writes on why its culture of learning from mistakes is a key element to its success. (And he looks here at why there have been some recent near misses in the US.)

And while those of us stuck in economy class have reason to complain about being packed in like sardines, part of the reason that metaphor works is because flying has become accessible to so many sardines. A 2022 report from the International Air Transport Association expects global flight passenger numbers to almost double by 2040 from pre-pandemic levels, due to Asia Pacific, Africa, and the Middle East becoming home to more people with more money.

Seeing this play out in real life was unexpectedly sweet. Kenyan families at the Nairobi airport took photos in front of the terminal signs. On my flight there, I was flummoxed at first when the young woman in the aisle seat next to me, dressed in an abaya and hijab, asked if it was possible for her to use the washroom. “I’m scared to go,” she added.  

“Of course,” I responded. “It’s right there, a few rows behind us.”

“Thanks,” she said. “I didn’t know. This is my first flight.”

Correction: An earlier version of this newsletter cited .017 deaths per one million air passengers in 2020. The correct figure is .17 and has been corrected above. We regret the error.

Quick hits

  • Our friends at Human Progress have a new data explorer and creator
  • Our Towns Civic Foundation, led by TPN Members Deborah and James Fallows, is seeing a shift ten years into their work on spotlighting American renewal at the local level: more and more people believe in it.
  • Several states now allow sexual assault survivors to track their rape kits
  • Alert, new dictionary words added! Additions include nepo baby, Big Pharma, decision fatigue, and box braids. 

Below in the links section, good news for 2,000 rhinos; signs of life in a world far, far away; death to the tampon tax in Texas; and more.

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Aerospace startup TransAstra is working with NASA funding to build an inflatable bag for capturing space trash. The bag would be sent into space with one of TransAstra’s Worker Bee spacecraft, where it would inflate to collect the space junk, which would then be brought to an in-space recycling center (video here). | Rendering: TransAstra

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Progress, Please

(Found good news? Tweet at us @progressntwrk or email.)

Other good stuff in the news 🐻‍❄️

Energy & Environment:

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Society & Culture:

TPN Member originals 🧠

(Who are our Members? Get to know them.)

Department of Ideas 💡
(A staff recommendation guaranteed to give your brain some food for thought.)

A constitution for teenage happinessThe Free Press
Ruby LaRocca—the winner of The Free Press‘ high school essay contest—urges her generation to read old books, memorize poems, and invite senior citizens to parties.

Why we picked it: It’s solid advice from a 17-year-old to her peers (and us all). See also: this solid advice from a 66-year-old to a 20-year-old (and us all). —Brian Leli

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Dem bones, dem bones, dem dancing bones . . . 🦴👽

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Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas is the Executive Director of The Progress Network. An editor and writer specializing in nonprofit media, she was formerly Executive Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is the editor of two books from Wisdom Publications.