To fully understand what's happening in our skies, we have to take the long-view.

By Melanie Lieberman
May 20, 2016
Egypt Air logo
Credit: Getty Images

In the early hours of May 19, 2016, EgyptAir MS804 disappeared. The overnight flight, which left Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport for Cairo International Airport at 11:05 p.m., was last seen making erratic, sharp turns at 37,000-feet, only to vanish somewhere over the Mediterranean at 3:29 a.m. It wasn’t until later in the day that wreckage of the flight—including two chairs and a single suitcase—was found.

As we begin to piece together the details—juggling suspicions of mechanical failures and terrorism—we are reminded of similar (and equally unusual) incidents. After all, air travel is exceedingly safe, and it’s extremely rare for a 70 ton airplane to just disappear from the many radars tracking its journey

According to the International Air Travel Association, there were 510 passenger fatalities in 2015—including Germanwings 9525 and Metrojet 9628—even as the number of flights skyrocketed to 37.6 million. If we weren't counting deliberate plane crashes, we would have reached a historic low. In 2014, there were 641 deaths: and even then, authorities deemed 2014 the safest year in history.

Of course, we can’t help but obsess when we have no answers. And these major, headline-making crashes and disappearances beg so many questions. Consider the most famous case: Amelia Earhart’s fateful final flight in her Electra 10E, which departed in May 1937. Eighty years later, and we still crave a tidy resolution.

Looking back over the last three years, it’s easy to pinpoint the tragedies that shook us, especially the ones without clear and logical conclusions.

March 8, 2014: Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Wreckage found not far from Mauritius is thought to be from the doomed Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, yet to this date we can only grasp at theories as to what caused the Boeing 777 to disappear with 227 and 12 crewmembers onboard.

December 28, 2014: AirAsia Flight 8501

A perfect storm of technical malfunctions and human error led this AirAsia flight to crash into the waters surrounding Borneo. When the black boxes were finally recovered, it was determined that miscommunications between the Indonesian co-pilot and French-speaking pilot, a scene of confusion and disorientation when the autopilot was turned off, faulty controls, and poor decision-making led to the crash.

March 24, 2015: Germanwings Flight 9525

The mystery surrounding the ill-fated Germanwings plane, also an Airbus A320, has begun to fade. It’s now clear that pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed the jet into the French Alps. The tragedy prompted airlines across the world to change cockpit protocol.

October 31, 215: Metrojet Flight 9268

A Russian Airbus 321 “disintegrated” over the Sinai Peninsula, killing everyone onboard, without so much as sending out a distress signal. Though findings almost certainly confirm a terrorist’s homemade bomb killed the 224 passengers and crew, conspiracy theories continue to fly between Russia, Egypt, even Turkey, as the countries involved point fingers.

March 29, 2016: EgyptAir Flight 181

Only two months before MS804 went missing, an EgyptAir plane (an A320) traveling to Cairo from Alexandria was hijacked by a fugitive, Seif Eldin Mustafa. He demanded that female inmates be released, that he be able to speak with European Union officials, and to visit his former wife in Cyprus. While no one was injured during the incident, it was a terrible omen for EgyptAir.