The art of aviation: Are our skies completely safe?

It’s 2019 and yet one thing still dominates the news for weeks when such an event occurs. The topic in question? Plane crashes.

Aviation disasters happen – there’s no pretty way of putting it. And when they do, the media latches onto the reports. It’s understandable; often there’s a big loss of human life.

Already in 2019, fatal air accidents have happened. A total number of 206 lives have been lost so far due to aviation crashes. This is across 14 different incidents, in countries such as America, Canada and Ethiopia.  

The facts: one third of people in the U.K. are more scared of flying than they were a decade ago, according to a report issued by National Geographic. This then raised the question of: are our skies completely safe?

Conducting a survey which was distributed via social media, results show that people are aware that there are risks involved when they set foot on a plane. Many quoted that it’s the safest form of transport, yet the majority of responses said they felt nervous about flying because of the potential consequences.

Ian Taggart is a First Officer at TUI, with years of commercial aviation experience.

“There’s a lot of data out there on this which backs up that it is the safest form of transport,” he says. “That said, commercial aviation should not be mixed up with general aviation – like light aircraft. They have vastly different accident rates. Commercial flying is unbelievably safe!”

Despite this, he believes that the risk factor for commercial flights will “never reach zero”.

“There’s a lot of complex reasons for this,” he says. “Whilst the human element is seen as a reason, I still don’t think it would reach zero if we removed the human out of it. As we have seen recently the interface between design and humans can often surprise us.”

The NTSB is the team who investigate all transport accidents in America or involving U.S.-made transport. Credit: NTSB

He goes on to list cultural factors and global training standards as another two factors. Ian feels the “emotion” that goes with any disaster. However, as a professional in the industry he has “immense respect and faith” in the investigation teams.

2017 was the safest year on record for commercial aviation, with no fatalities. However, high profile accidents in the past six months has heightened press surrounding how safe flying really is.

The Aviation Safety Network group has reported that deaths in airliner crashes have been falling since 1997. Only 14 years ago, fatalities in air accidents commonly hit the 1,000 mark around the globe annually.

Niamh Kenny spent her early career as cabin crew with British Airways. During her six weeks of training, she recalls how safety was a key feature.

“Safety is the main thing you are trained on and that is really nailed into you with repetitive drills on door operations,” she says. “ You can guarantee when you’re on a flight that the cabin crew have been through rigorous training and you get examined and tested every year to make sure you are up to date.”

In addition, they are taught how to evacuate a full A380 – the biggest passenger jet – in under 90 seconds, and how to protect an aircraft if a  suspicious item is found onboard.

Like Ian, she believes that the risk involved with flying will never be completely eradicated.

“I wouldn’t say it’s completely safe but it has the highest safety of any transportation,” she says. “There are so many failsafe mechanisms in modern aircraft that you can feel safe that the aircraft will get to a safe place even with some catastrophic problems. You can also take some comfort in knowing that the pilots and crew are trained in how to protect you and you should listen to their advice and instructions.”

She also labels the Boeing 737 Max as having a “terrible record” with two fatal crashes. However, she reaffirms that you’re more liked to be killed or injured by using an escalator.

One of TUI’s Boeing 737 Max. The aircraft is now grounded.

50 people were asked the question of what the industry needs to do to make flying as safe as possible. The responses ranged from ensuring the pilots have even more checklists in the cockpits, to tightening the monitoring and vetting surrounding a pilot’s mental wellbeing.

In 2015, a GermanWings plane crashed into the Alps. The cause was found to be pilot suicide. Yet, he didn’t just end his own life – he killed the other 149 people onboard with him.

GermanWings plane crash wreckage
GermanWings plane crash wreckage. Credit: NY Daily News

Unfortunately, this occurrence isn’t a one-off. Since 1976, there has been 24 suspected or known air crashes where a pilot has deliberately downed their aircraft.

Even frequent flyers question whether they’re completely safe when they take to the skies.

“The news over the past year makes me ask questions,” says Lindsay Smith, a well-seasoned air traveller. “The fact that a whole plane can be destroyed because of one minute error is extreme. If you’re in a car and you have an issue, you can pull over to the side of the road. Really, it’s a minor issue. If you have an issue in the sky, you can fall 35,000 feet to your death. It’s frank, but it’s the truth.”

And, Lindsay has a point. Yes, flying is safe compared to a decade ago. However, the risk element will always be apparent.

So, the answer to the question: our skies are safe to a certain degree, but no one is able to guarantee complete safety.


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