The crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 on Saturday at San Francisco International Airport could have been much worse. Two Chinese teens lost their lives when an underpowered Boeing 777 attempting to land after a flight from South Korea failed to clear a breakwall short of the runaway, crash-landed and caught fire. The plane was quickly evacuated, and only 50 of the 307 passengers and crew sustained serious injuries. While the investigation is continuing, it appears the focus of any reforms should be on making sure pilots have the proper training and experience on the specific planes they are flying.
With more than 5 million flights logged, the Boeing 777 is the workhorse of commercial aviation, with nearly 1,500 of the aircraft's various models produced since 1993. The San Francisco accident was the first involving fatalities since the aircraft went into service. While some smaller carriers have experienced fatal crashes, Saturday's incident was the worst accident involving a large airliner in the United States since 2001, when an American Airlines Airbus A300-600 crashed shortly after takeoff over Queens, New York, killing all 251 passengers and crew and five people on the ground.
Because of improvements in aircraft design — such as better seat construction, flame-retardant interior cabin material, enhanced safety doors and exit chutes — passengers and crews have a much better chance of surviving even a significant crash, as Saturday's accident demonstrated. State-of-the-art avionics means that sophisticated aircraft such as the Boeing 777 are literally able to fly themselves on autopilot. But those technological advances have come at a price.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigating Flight 214 is taking a closer look at the flight crew's handling of the aircraft's final moments. At the San Francisco airport, arriving flights would normally lock onto a land-based instrument system that guides the plane to touchdown. But on Saturday the system had been shut down to accommodate a construction project, requiring Flight 214's captain in command, who only had 43 hours of experience flying the 777, to fly the aircraft. The result was catastrophic. The dirty little secret in much of commercial aviation is how little pilots actually engage in hands-on control of the aircraft, essentially becoming glorified passengers. Investigators should determine why the flight crew allowed the plane to drop below the minimum landing speed of about 150 mph and didn't notice the impending danger until it was too late.
The fate of Flight 214 is a cautionary reminder that for all of aviation's technological advances, having engaged and properly trained pilots fully in command still remains the most important onboard safety requirement.