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After AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines crashes, are planes safe to travel on?

Three prominent aviation disasters in a single year have given the airline industry a bad name and a big problem. How is the sector attempting to ease the concerns of its nervous customers?

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2014 proved a devastating year for air travel, with the demise of three major planes. The events have made travellers more cautious than ever, but we still have reason to believe in the safety of the air industry
2014 proved a devastating year for air travel, with the demise of three major planes. The events have made travellers more cautious than ever, but we still have reason to believe in the safety of the air industry 

1,320

Fatalities occurred as a result of plane crashes in 2014

38m

The number of successful flights worldwide in 2011

1 in 2.7m

The global accident rate for Western-built planes in 2011

671m

Passengers travelled on a US airline in 2011

2.8bn

The number of passengers who flew safely in 2011

1 in 11m

The chance of perishing in a plane crash

Sources: www.howstuffworks.com, IATA, ABTS, NTSB and time.com

Fatal accidents by phase of flight (1959-2008)

12%

Taxi, loading, parked

12%

Take off

8%

Initial climb

10%

Climb

8%

Cruise

4%

Descent

10%

Initial approach

11%

Final approach

25%

Landing

The frequently repeated statistic that one is more likely to be killed by lightning than perish in a plane crash has been sadly challenged over the last 12 months. While statistically it still appears to be true (one chance in 11 million for plane crashes, one in 10 million for lightning), the three horrific tragedies that hit the passengers and crew on one AirAsia voyage and two Malaysia Airlines flights during 2014 have given many anxious travellers fresh cause for concern.

A tragic 12 months
The first disaster of the year struck on March 8 2014. Taking off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport and destined for Beijing, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 went missing at approximately 01:21 MYT. Thought to be somewhere over the South China Sea when it disappeared, the aircraft was carrying 227 passengers from around the world, as well as 12 crew members.

Ultimately, sending a large metal tube up into the air is always going to be an extremely difficult task

A massive international search was undertaken in the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, while the world’s media was gripped with the mystery of what had happened to the flight. Some speculated over whether it might have been a terrorist incident, while others debated whether it had been brought down by turbulence, or if a technical fault had struck the equipment. Still unfound, there has been no concrete resolution as to what actually happened to Flight MH370.

Just a few months later, the world was shocked by the tragedy that befell yet another Malaysia Airlines flight: this time the plane, flight MH17, was travelling between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur. The Boeing 777-200ER aircraft was flying over the Ukraine-Russia border at the height of conflict between the two countries, when it was grounded near Donetsk Oblast. Many believe that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile used by some pro-Russian separatist forces in the region. The blame for this cannot, of course, be placed on the airline or makers of the jet – but some have still questioned whether the airplane should have been flying over such a troubled region in the first place. All 298 people on board the flight – 283 of whom were passengers – were killed.

Finally, at the tail end of the year, tragedy struck the industry once again: AirAsia flight QZ8501, which was travelling from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore, lost contact with air traffic control early in the morning of December 28. Parts of the plane were discovered a day later by fishermen, and an effort to recover bodies and the black box recorder immediately began. Again, all 162 people on board were killed in the crash, but it is still unclear exactly what caused the plane to fall out of the sky.

Record numbers
While last year proved to be a particularly difficult year for Asian airlines, such tragedies are certainly not exclusive to the region. Air France flight 447 went missing in June 2009 on route from Paris to Rio. While the wreckage from the plane was discovered within a week of the crash, it took a further two years for divers to recover the black box recorder from the bed of the Atlantic Ocean.

Ultimately, sending a large metal tube up into the air is always going to be an extremely difficult task. However, for many decades the airline industry has managed to do so with relatively few catastrophes – indeed, fatal incidents in the industry had been at record lows before the AirAsia crash at the end of 2014. According to the Flight Safety Foundation, the number of jet crashes – including small passenger jets – was at an all-time low of 21 during 2014. However, the number of fatalities – 1,320 – is the biggest since 2005, because of the size of the three planes that crashed.

Flight facts

The first three minutes and the final eight minutes (take off and landing) are the most statistically dangerous parts of a flight

583 people died in the world’s deadliest plane crash in the Canary Islands in March 1977, when two jumbo jets collided

Flight recorders can survive impacts of 3,600 Gs and temperatures of more than 1,000 degrees C

The industry response has been less about safety, however, and more to do with advancing how planes are tracked. For many years, the airline industry has relied upon radar systems to track planes, as well as flight records, more commonly known as ‘black boxes’. These tend to reveal just what happened to planes when they crashed, as they electronically record the recent history of the flight through a number of different parameters several times a second. The information contained includes voice recordings from the cockpit, as well as data from recorders that are placed throughout the plane.

The length of time that the boxes are required to store information for has changed over the years, and also depends largely on the territory that the airline operates in. In 2008, the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) required black boxes to record for a minimum of two hours, which was up from the previous recommendation of just 30 minutes.

After flight MH370, however, the industry is beginning to realise the limitations of flight recorder technology. If a plane goes missing, it is extremely difficult to determine what happened to it, as most of the vital information is stored in the black box. Many have instead argued for live streaming of data, especially in light of recent technological advancements. There have also been calls for the batteries on the tracking beacons to be extended from the current 30 days to 90 days, as well as for the range of the locator to be increased – steps that, if done earlier, could have resulted in the black box from Air France flight 447 being recovered much earlier than a full two years after the crash occurred.

Technical issues
Things became starker after the AirAsia flight crashed on December 28: after the flight recorders from the airplane were recovered in mid-January, people in the industry began to talk of a need for changes. An anonymous representative from the UN’s International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) told Reuters that one option was for black boxes to be ejected before a crash, making them easier to recover. “The time has come that deployable recorders are going to get a serious look”, said the representative.

However, deployable recorders – invented by the Canadian government’s National Research Council in the 1960s – are seen as particularly expensive, and, as such, are only really used for military aircrafts. Some estimates put them at double the cost of a traditional flight record, which are already typically priced at around $15,000 each.

Despite this, there seems to be a growing consensus that some form of advanced tracking system be made mandatory in the industry. Tony Tyler, CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), told reporters in early December that he would like to see real time flight tracking information provided, so that the frantic search seen after Malaysia Airline flight MH370, along with the subsequent mystery of its whereabouts, is not something that we see again. “Airlines are taking the tracking issue very seriously. Some already exceed the report’s suggested performance criteria. For others, closing the gap may take more than a 12-month timeline for every aircraft.”

However, he also mentioned that many airlines found that this would be too prohibitive in terms of timeframe and cost. By January, in the immediate aftermath of the AirAsia crash, it seemed that the industry was already beginning to realise that serious improvements needed to be made if they were to regain the trust of their passengers.

The ICAO revealed that it was proposing a new standard that would require all commercial aircrafts to communicate their position to the ground every 15 minutes. Spokesman Anthony Philbin told Reuters, “If [member states] agree to the standard, the safety conference will also be asked how quickly it expects to be implemented and if it would want ICAO to expedite that process.”

Qatar Airways announced in January that it would become the first airline in the world to test out an automatic tracking system, replacing the existing radar platform that is currently used across the industry. The company’s CEO, Akbar al Baker, said that the initial trial would allow the technology to be installed across his airline’s fleet: “Once this has been proven and all the bugs have been cleared, then Qatar Airways will, I hope, be the first airliner to introduce this in all our planes.”

Safety first
Airlines take safety extremely seriously, and it is widely considered by the industry to be the most important aspect of flying. The endless checks that planes go through before and after every flight ensure that travelling by plane is, in fact, far safer than many people think. However, it is the disturbing manner in which these high-profile disasters have occurred that has led to many people becoming increasingly wary of travelling by plane.

The statistics show that planes are, for the most part, safe. However, the industry must continually improve its systems so that crashes – particularly those of the nature that have been seen recently – are kept to a minimum. This means that airlines provide pilots with technology that gives them all the latest information about potential bad weather and danger zones. Critically, airlines must also invest in new tracking systems that will prevent the prolonged searches for fallen aircrafts, and hopefully allow any unlikely survivors to be reached far more quickly.

Avoiding these types of tragedies will always be at the top of any airline’s list of priorities. However, if the industry wants to regain the trust of its passengers, it now needs to be more vigilant than ever.

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