Safety issues in commercial aviation

Flying is only the safest form of travel if you take passenger miles into account – a dubious statistic, as by definition flights tend to be long-distance. If you look at deaths per million journeys or per million hours (figures used by the airline insurance industry), flying is more dangerous than car or train travel but still safer than cycling or motorcycling. Of course, most plane crashes involve small aircraft operated by minor airlines based in poor countries. Twenty years ago, many Third World nations simply did not have their own airlines, and relied on western carriers. Now they run their own planes on a shoestring, with poorly trained pilots. The EU publishes a roll call of airlines deemed too dangerous to fly into Europe. The Democratic Republic of Congo alone has 58 airlines on the banned list. As more and more of us fly to far flung destinations a growing number of tourists find themselves on dodgy Third World planes. However, there has been a spate of air crashes in the last year or two leading to speculation that something is amiss even in the West. Some have pointed the finger at Airbus with its cockpits festooned with computer screens and electronic trickery. Could these aircraft simply be too clever for their own good, or too susceptible to software glitches? Otherwise, under economic pressure, could airlines simply be cutting back on costs, skimping on safety checks and saving on maintenance and pushing their crews to the limit? As recently as the Sixties, you were ten times more likely to be involved in a serious aviation incident than you are now. Accident rates fell steadily throughout the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. Everyone expected them to continue falling but they have stalled. According to Boeing, 55% of all serious incidents are down to flight crew error, 17% are caused by mechanical faults, 13% by the weather, and the rest by factors such as terrorism, air traffic control problems, bird-strikes and poor maintenance. As regards the manufacturer, the number of crashes involving Boeings and Airbuses is more or less equal. Of course, manufacturers tend to over emphasize human error as a cause of a crash rather than accepting that their planes might be at fault but it is clear there is a problem with training. Pilots familiar with operating older, less reliable, aircraft are nearing the end of their careers, and there is a generation of pilots whose only experience is of operating aircraft with highly reliable automated systems. New pilots spend the first part of training flying old-fashioned aircraft. To qualify to fly the actual airliners and operate the complex computer systems in them they then spend hours and hours in a simulator. They become increasingly dependent on electronic aids and spend far too little time practising old-fashioned skills which they might need when those aids fail. There is far too little emphasis on what to do if they are faced with an anomalous or confusing reading or if computers fail. Training systems tend to assume the computer read-outs are always correct. What can one do to avoid becoming another one of the statistics? Well, one should never, ever, fly with an airline you have never heard of, particularly in Africa, the former USSR, or Indonesia. Where you are seated also matters since people within six rows of an emergency exit are significantly more likely to survive as are people near the rear or in the isle seats. Above all, one should always read the safety card and locate the nearest way out.

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