Boeing Dreamliner grounding recalls earlier incident at O'Hare

The 1979 crash of Flight 191 led the FAA to ground all commercial DC-10 airplanes.

January 17, 2013

Flickr/INABA Tomoaki

As Boeing scrambles to contain the damage from its globally grounded fleet of 787s, it's worth remembering the last time government regulators took such a drastic step.

In fact, it’s been decades since the Federal Aviation Administration has issued an emergency directive (formally, it's called an emergency airworthiness directive) that grounds an entire commercial airline model. One of the last times it happened was back in 1979.

 

It was Memorial Day weekend, and following the crash of American Airlines Flight 191, the FAA issued a similar directive that grounded all McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 planes. All 271 passengers and crew on board were killed, along with two people on the ground. It remains one of the deadliest in aviation history, and is still considered the deadliest accident to occur on U.S. soil.

Here's some archival footage from WLS that day:

 

But transportation safety experts are quick to point out the last commercial airline crash in the United States occurred more than a decade ago on Nov. 12, 2001. Aviation safety improves constantly, especially in the past three decades, said Carl Dinwiddie, who participated in the Flight 191 accident investigation for the National Transportation Safety Board.

"There are a lot of new programs the airlines have taken to get out of in front of problems," said Dinwiddie, who is now retired, but was also an NTSB regional director for the Central Region. "They look at flight data recorder data on pilots and various flights, and if they start to see trends, they take care of it."

Dinwiddie points out that the NTSB and the FAA spend thousands of hours researching airline incidents, making recommendations on things that many

"The NTSB will drill down very deeply," he said, adding he thought the FAA's action was prudent.

Dinwiddie says there's "no doubt in my mind" that the Boeing Dreamliner will not be back in the air until regulators are sure the plane is safe.

And he points out with more than 10,000 commercial flights daily, air travel remains among the safest modes of transportation.

"It’s safer to go on an airplane probably than go in your bathroom and take a shower," he said.