United Airlines FAA

Two United Airlines Boeing 737s are parked at the gate at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press, file

The nation’s top aviation safety officials sought to reassure travelers this week that flying in the United States remains incredibly safe, despite a series of high-profile mishaps and an ongoing probe at Boeing that have spooked the public and turned airlines into fodder for late-night comedians and social media meme pages.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg stressed at a conference hosted by news site Axios that flying was the safest way to travel. Michael Whitaker, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, repeated that message on NBC’s “Nightly News.” And in a post on X, Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, compared the airlines’ safety record against the 118 people who die on average each day in car crashes.

But their voices have to compete with the likes of comedian Jimmy Fallon, who targeted Boeing in a limerick on his show last week: “Spring break the students were going – excited, they all were a-glowin’. Then they let out a squeal, lost the door and the wheel, guess they shouldn’t have flown on a Boeing.”

The dueling messages reflect the complexity of understanding the current moment in aviation safety, which requires untangling several seemingly contradictory threads, experts say. January’s midair blowout on an Alaska Airlines flight was dangerous and could have led to people being killed, but the U.S. airline system has gone 15 years without a fatal crash. Subsequent investigations turned up serious quality control problems in Boeing’s 737 Max factory, but the FAA says it is continuing to certify planes coming off the production line as safe. A string of other recent in-flight incidents prompted the FAA on Saturday to announce it would increase its oversight of at least one major air carrier, United Airlines – but experts say there’s no sign of a systemic problem.

The NTSB, which is leading the investigation into the Alaska incident, is responsible for investigating every aviation accident involving significant damage to an aircraft or injuries to people on board. So far this year, it has opened 10 investigations into airline flights, compared with 13 in the same period last year. Some recent incidents that have attracted attention – like a United Airlines flights that lost a tire – did not rise to the level requiring an NTSB investigation.

Robert Sumwalt, a former chairman of the safety board, said he sees no evidence flying has become less safe right now. While he said it’s not acceptable for wheels to fall off planes or a jet to run over the end of a runway, the system has redundancies in place to keep people from getting hurt.


“What I believe we have is a situation where once one or two of these things happen, the media starts jumping on these things,” Sumwalt said in an email. “It’s a feeding frenzy.”

For now, the safety worries do not appear to be dampening Americans’ enthusiasm for air travel. In recent polls, respondents have said they still view flying as generally safe. And Airlines for America, a group representing major carriers, forecast that spring travel demand will be up 6 percent compared with last year, predicting that a record 167.1 million people will fly in March and April.

“We are proud of our safety record yet recognize that we cannot become complacent and must always exercise vigilance,” the group said in a statement. “We take every incident seriously and investigate – coordinating closely and working collaboratively with industry partners and government agencies.”

Nonetheless, news reports have quickly become fodder for scathing memes about Boeing and aviation safety that have recently spread across nearly every social media platform. On Instagram, large humor accounts including @funnyhoodvidz with 15.6 million followers, @thetinderblog with over 4 million followers, and @moistbuddha with over 3.7 million followers have posted memes mocking Boeing and its 737 jets.

Dozens of pages have shared a post by X user Jon Drake that reads, “In my 737 era (falling apart, few loose screws, not properly maintained for several years).”

On TikTok, searches for the word Boeing surface hundreds of videos commenting on recent safety slip-ups and the death of a Boeing whistleblower.


“You couldn’t pay me to step on Boeing right now,” said one TikToker with over 1.3 million followers who goes by the handle @justinonTikTok. The video has over 270,000 views and a slew of comments saying that they too are too scared to fly the planes. Some comments question the company’s role in the whistleblower’s death. (Authorities have said he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.)

Don Caldwell, general manager of Know Your Meme, an internet meme database, said that the company has seen a significant spike in memes about Boeing and safety concerns. Some companies might respond by trying to engage online directly, but Caldwell said that doesn’t appear to a good option for Boeing.

“The memes online now are very critical of Boeing and their practices,” Caldwell said. “They present Boeing as incompetent and their planes as dangerous.”

The online content builds on real safety issues that have continued to occur in recent weeks, and target airlines as well. On Monday, United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby sought to reassure customers after a string of incidents involving the carrier, highlighting a planned day of extra training for pilots in May.

“Our airline has experienced a number of incidents that are reminders of the importance of safety,” Kirby wrote in a letter to passengers. The letter did not identify specific incidents, but in addition to the plane losing a tire, another United plane was found to be missing a section of paneling after landing, and another suffered an engine fire.

“While they are all unrelated, I want you to know that these incidents have our attention and have sharpened our focus,” Kirby wrote.


On Friday, United said the FAA would conduct extra oversight of the airline. “They agree that we need to take an even closer look at multiple areas of our operation to ensure we are doing all we can to promote and drive safety compliance,” the company said in a memo to staffers.

The FAA said Saturday it was “increasing oversight of United Airlines to ensure that it is complying with safety regulations; identifying hazards and mitigating risk; and effectively managing safety.”

FAA regulators identified quality-control problems at the factory outside Seattle where Boeing assembles its 737 Max aircraft, as well as at a major supplier’s factory in Wichita. Officials say the FAA’s efforts to hold Boeing accountable – the agency has demanded a plan to correct the problems at the Washington plant and has capped production rates – are examples of the safety system in action.

The preliminary NTSB report on the Alaska incident found the panel that flew of the plane had been removed in Boeing’s factory and seemingly reinstalled without bolts supposed to hold it in place. Boeing has said it has been unable to find documentation connected to the work.

Among the audit findings related to the supplier, Spirit AeroSystems, were examples of workers using Dawn soap and hotel key cards to carry out jobs in the factory – a seemingly jarring intrusion of everyday items into a sophisticated manufacturing plant. But Joe Buccino, a Spirit spokesman, said both were suitable for the tasks and that the audit findings related to how their use had been documented.

Buccino said that in all the audit had found seven areas where the company failed to meet FAA standards. “We seek continual improvement across all aspects of our programs and this audit provides an azimuth and direction toward that end,” Buccino said.


Executives at Boeing have also acknowledged the findings and say they’re working to address them. Brian West, the company’s finance chief, told analysts at an investment conference this week that the solution would involve training and tackling problems like “traveled work,” where manufacturing problems have to be resolved outside of the typical sequence.

“There’s changes that need to happen. There’s no doubt about it,” West said. “…We acknowledge that we need to improve upon safety and quality and conformance.”

Whitaker said in an interview this week that the evidence from the audit and survey of Boeing’s safety culture showed that the company had been focused more on finishing planes than on ensuring quality and safety. Redressing that balance would take a culture shift at the company, he said.

“Safety and quality has to be the bedrock of everything you do and production has to be secondary,” Whitaker said.

But, Whitaker said, had the FAA audit turned up something that posed an immediate safety risk with an aircraft, the agency “wouldn’t let it be produced.”

The FAA and the NTSB are continuing to investigate the Alaska incident and broader issues at Boeing. But Homendy, the safety board chair, stressed the continued safety of the airline industry.

“I’ve seen a lot of sensationalism around aviation lately,” Homendy said on X. “The fact is our aviation system is the safest in the world and all of us – investigators, regulators, airlines, employees, and manufacturers – are working to make sure it stays that way.”

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