Fifty Years and Counting, the Boeing 737 Remains One of the Safest Ways to Travel

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I was reminded of just how many people are petrified of flying on a recent flight from Inverness to London Gatwick. The guy sat next to me, a man I had just spent the weekend with climbing the side of icy mountains—untethered to anything but our crampons—crushed his armrests through fear at the slightest notion of turbulence.

We all know air travel is the safest kind of travel. “The numbers are on your side,” we’ll say. Or a favourite of mine, “It’s actually more dangerous driving to the airport.” That doesn’t help the slightest bit though when you’re at 36,000 feet.

The huge numbers involved in the game of odds are intangible, mostly, for the human brain. But on Sunday, the 50th anniversary of the Boeing 737, the numbers come up clearly in the favour of survival.

Since 1967, Boeing has delivered 9,448 of the aircraft, in some variant or another, and there are still 4,506 more on order. But there have been only 196 complete hull losses.

Production photo of first Boeing 737-100. Image: Gordon Werner/Flickr

Just over 100 of those losses were original 737-100 or 737-200 variants, of which only 1,144 were built in the 1960s. They’re old news, you don’t have to worry about them anymore. The later 737 variants, known as 737-300, 737-400, and 737-500s, only saw 49 losses out of a production run of 1990. Today’s newer, next generation 737s, classed as 737-6/7/8/900, have only suffered 12 complete write-offs, out of more than 5,600 built, according to British 737 pilot Chris Brady, who has compiled a list of 737 incidents.

“The 737 has proven itself to be an immensely safe airliner,” Brady told Motherboard. “It is recently reached the incredible milestone of 50 years of operation with almost 10,000 aircraft delivered and over 4,000 more on order. This is by far the most of any airliner ever built surpassing the previous record holder, the venerable DC3 Dakota.”

Minus the ground incidents, rejected takeoffs, and minor landing gear issues that only result in passenger hospitalization at worst, actual catastrophic and fatal 737 crashes are even rarer. Multiple hijackings and one bomb account for many deaths, with bad weather on approach accounting for most of the others. The advanced cockpit instrumentation and improved air traffic control eliminates this today.

So, while in may not be entirely fatality free, like the Airbus A340, there’s almost absolutely no need to panic next time you’re on a Boeing 737.

“I flew the 737 for 18 years and can honestly say that it was a superbly capable and safe aircraft. This in my view came from its perfect balance of technology, automation and relatively simple human-machine interface which always kept 737 pilots in the loop as to what the aircraft was doing,” Brady said to Motherboard.

Correction: This article originally stated the 737 had suffered 169 complete hull losses. Up to data data from the Aviation Safety Network claims the 737 has suffered 196 hull-loss occurrences.

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