Statistically, air travel is reasonably safe when compared with road, rail and
sea. Many countries have a high death and injury rate on the roads; train, ferry
and ocean-going ship disasters are regular enough to be commonplace, taking a
global view. yet air disasters are usually fatal to all or most concerned and
are therefore more widely reported. Consequently there is international pressure
to make air travel as safe as possible, and rightly so. Yet no form of travel
can be made totally safe. The causes of disaster, whether natural or man-made,
can never be completely eliminated.
Looking first at natural causes, at least
three can be identified. Bad weather is one. This includes storm, icing and
air-pockets in the case of light aircraft; less so in the case of large jets
with sophisticated instrumentation. One cause in the case of jets can be large
flocks of birds or swarms of insects being sucked into the jet nacelles and
thereby stopping the engines. This may happen at low altitudes. Little can be
done to prevent this. A third is the alleged danger in what is known as the
"Bermuda triangle" in which both ships and aircraft have been lost without
trace. In the case of aircraft the reason is though to be loss of horizon due to
Most dangers to aircraft however are man-made. The first and obvious danger
is collision. In the busiest airports, especially in the tourist season,
aircraft may take off as often as every twenty seconds. Much strain is imposed
on aircraft dispatchers and traffic control generally. Clearance for dispatch is
by radar and computer. Personal fatigue or mechanical failure in a radar center
can be very dangerous. Aircraft often have to circle before being given landing
permission, and collision or perhaps a near miss can result from mistakes in
assigning heights. Most, though not all countries have strict regulations
governing air traffic control. Any strike by operatives will cause grounding --
bad enough, but preferable to taking risks.
Another cause of trouble may be the age of the aircraft. Metal fatigue
eventually sets in; cracks appear, bits of the aircraft may fall off, even whole
engines, or the passenger cabin may lose compression. This means almost certain
death to all passengers and crew, and there have been cases where an aircraft
has been lost because one of the doors was not properly secured. The important
of safety checks before take-off is obvious. So also is the importance of
regular and completely efficient servicing. Operatives' licenses can be
withdrawn if government inspectors find inefficiency in this area. Most modern
aircraft can shut down engines which catch fire, deal automatically with the
fire, and proceed on three, or even two engines.
Cabin fires are equally dangerous. They may occur for any reason, but in many
cases they result from a crash landing causing the fuel to ignite. two things
are important here. First, cabin exit must be unimpeded. Some modern aircraft
have built-in chutes for swift escape. Much of course depends on cabin staff and
their ability to prevent panic. Second, the seat upholstery must be non-flam.
Many people have died from the noxious smoke emanating from flammable
There is argument today about emergency drills. Normally a steward will
explain life-jackets for use should there be a sea landing, and just mention
oxygen masks which are lowered to each seat. Should all these by physically
tried out by all passengers prior to take-off ? Such drills are boring and time
consuming, but the time may come when they are mandatory.
Some disasters are caused by pilot error. Recently a Shackleton in fog
crashed into a hillside in Britain, killing twenty-five young men. the plane has
a good safety record. Again recently the pilot of a plane with a faulty engine
shut down the good engine due to the failure of his instrumentation. the plane
crashed, killing most occupants, and virtually destroying a small village.
Sometimes instrumentation can be affected by electronic interference due to
unauthorized equipment carried in the hold or hand luggage. This hazard can be
Not much can be done about terrorism except through airfield security and
electronic vetting of all passengers and luggage. Unhappily not all airports are
really efficient in this regard. Efficiency would arrest the terrorist and the
hijacker on the airport.
Finally, attempts by carriers to economize on pilot coverage and seating
space must be prevented by law. The two essentials are fresh and fully-trained
pilots, and reasonable space for movement in emergency.
The answer to the question is no. Much could still be done to avert future