Air travel safety: a pie in the sky?


Statistically air travel has never been safer; every time you get on an aircraft your odds of meeting a fatal accident are around one in eleven million. The equivalent risk for a car in the UK is around fifty-thousand times higher at around one in twenty thousand. Yet, the two extensively covered near-catastrophes in the first week of the New Year have rocked the world of commercial aviation and increased anxieties of even the most frequent of fliers. Inevitably the intense nature of coverage of these incidents has led many to question whether we are still safe in the sky?

The 2nd of January collision on the runway at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport tragically saw five passengers onboard a Japanese Coast Guard aircraft perish as their plane collided with an inbound Japan Airlines A350. The incident sent a reminder to us of the catastrophic consequences that can come to bear from one of the riskiest phases of the journey, the on-the-ground traffic at airports handling hundreds of jets at a time. The fact that there wasn’t a single fatality onboard the A350 has been described as a miraculous feat; far from it being a miracle, it’s the result of a function of modern crew-training, expertise, and safety regulations. The diligence with which crews on airliners prepare the cabin for landing may sometimes cause us passengers slight inconveniences as we are compelled to sit upright, tuck our bags under the seat in front of us, and put away our tray tables, but the results of those precautions have spoken for themselves.

The evacuation of the airliner was essentially flawless; passengers obeyed instructions and left behind their hand-luggage and valuables, and the heroism of the crew meant that all passengers utilised the right exits. Before the A350 was certified, Airbus was required to demonstrate that a full aircraft could be evacuated in under ninety-seconds, and although the Japan Airlines evacuation took longer as five out eight exits were out of use due to the fire, the evacuation was quick enough to ensure the safety of all 379 passengers. The survival rate wasn’t left down to chance but is rather down to the global commercial aviation reaping the rewards of exceptionally high standards of regulation and training.

The two extensively covered near-catastrophes in the first week of the New Year have rocked the world of commercial aviation

The anxieties that have been cultivated since the Alaska Airlines just three days following the Haneda incident have been notably more elevated. The terrifying mid-air detachment of a fridge-door sized component of the fuselage of a 737-Max-9 fortunately saw no fatalities, but the outcome could’ve been very different had anyone been sat in the row of seats where the hole emerged. The 737 Max has been shrouded with controversy before, after two deadly accidents led to their temporary global grounding in 2019.

The incident reflects the recent shortcomings in Boeing’s manufacturing process as the company grapples with supply-chain shortages and increasing pressure to increase their speed of deliveries. The only two operators of the Max-9 in the US have found “installation issues” on their aircraft, and all Max-9s remain grounded in the US. Boeing’s CEO Dave Calhoun fought back tears in an emotional speech where he said the company needed to own up to its shortcomings saying, “I got kids, and I got grandkids, and so do you”. Boeing is an irrefutably integral component to the global aviation eco-system and it is thus only natural that some nervousness has developed with some travellers on social media commenting “if it ain’t Airbus, I’m taking a bus”, a play on the iconic “if it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going” line that emerged after the launch of the Boeing 707 in the late 1950s ushered in a revolutionary- age in modern aviation.

However, because of the sheer amount of scrutiny the Max has faced in the past, the regulatory conditions it has had to satisfy to achieve certification are extraordinary. No aviation analyst would dispute that the Max is one of the safest aircraft ever made. Passengers trust it too, Ryanair which is one of the largest operators in the world of the Max has reported that no passengers have expressed concerns over travelling on the aircraft. Indeed, in the past when Ryanair said it would allow any concerned passengers on a Max-flight to move to the next available non-Max flight, not a single passenger did so. Assuredly, they have no reason to be concerned – we should all recognise that far from being a pie in the sky, safety in global aviation has never been practiced at a higher standard.

Image: Nir Sinay via Flickr

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