It could have been a tragedy, but wasn’t.  After yesterday’s dramatic Hudson River crash landing of a US Airways jet, all 155 passengers and crew made it back to shore safely.   Much of the credit goes to the plane’s pilot, who managed to maneuver the plane safely down.   But the incident also illustrates the breathtaking, long-term improvements in safety that have taken place in the airline industry. 

It’s exactly the sort of good news that is too often ignored by the media.  Despite the vast media coverage given to aviation accidents, the aviation industry has achieved breathtaking success in improving air safety.  In the more than 100 years since Orville and Wilbur’s first flight – which ended with a crash – aviation accident rates have dropped exponentially.  (Here’s more detail on that progress).  Amazingly, according to figures released earlier this week, there have no fatal airline accidents on a U.S. carrier since 2006 – the longest such period in history.

This record was achieved despite the grim warnings of many so-called experts that airline deregulation would usher in an era of aviation carnage. Faced with competition, they argued, airlines would cut corners on safety in order to cut costs.  

Such arguments persisted for years.  In 1986, for example, former pilot John Nance wrote in his widely publicized book, Blind Trust:

The ultimate cost of … [deregulation] may be measurable in more than services lost and leg room sacrificed.  The true cost may be paid in passenger lives, because through haste and ignorance, Congress has inadvertently degraded airline safety.

Nance and the others were massively wrong.

This doesn’t mean that deregulation itself necessarily enhanced air safety. The broad trend line of safety improvement, in fact, seems to have continued at more or less the same rate before and after deregulation. In fact, it may be impossible to say with precision what would have happened had there been no reform. What is clear, however, is that the grim predictions of disaster by market opponents did not come true.

Why were they wrong? One reason is that the gloomsayers misread the incentives facing businesses in a competitive market. Rather than scrimp on safety measures to gain short-term profits, airlines have found it even more in their interest to ensure the safety of their passengers. Simply put, no one makes money by putting passengers in danger. In short, markets provide what consumers demand — and air travelers demand safety most of all.

There is, of course, room for improvement in air travel safety: in preventing crashes, and in ensuring security in the post-Sept. 11 world. But we can also stop to take pride in the safety achievements of the past century, and the inventors and entrepreneurs who made it possible.