Growing demand for travel sparks safety concerns
By The Associated Press
July 29, 2014, New York, N.Y. - More travellers are flying than ever before, creating a daunting challenge for airlines: keep passengers safe in an ever more crowded airspace.
By The Associated Press
Each day, 8.3 million people around the globe — roughly the
population of New York City — step aboard an airplane. They almost
always land safely.
Some flights, however, are safer than others.
The accident rate in Africa, for instance, is
nearly five times that of the worldwide average, according to the
International Civil Aviation Organization, part of the United Nations.
Such trouble spots also happen to be where air travel is growing the
fastest, putting the number of fliers on course to double within the
next 15 years.
"In some areas of the world, there's going to be
a learning curve," says Patrick Smith, a commercial airline pilot for
24 years and author of "Cockpit Confidential." But that doesn't
necessarily mean that the skies are going to become more dangerous.
"We've already doubled the volume of airplanes and passengers and what's
happened is we've gotten safer."
To meet the influx of passengers, airlines will
need to hire and train enough qualified pilots and mechanics.
Governments will have to develop and enforce safety regulations. New
runways with proper navigation aids will have to be constructed.
Industry experts acknowledge the difficulties,
but note that aviation has gone through major growth spurts before and
still managed to improve safety along the way.
Last year, 3.1 billion passengers flew, twice the total in 1999. Yet, the chances of dying in a plane crash were much lower.
Since 2000, there were less than three
fatalities per 10 million passengers, according to an Associated Press
analysis of crash data provided by aviation consultancy Ascend. In the
1990s, there were nearly eight; during the 1980s there were 11; and the
1970s had 26 deaths per 10 million passengers.
The last two weeks have been bad for aviation
with the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines flight followed by
separate crashes in Taiwan and Mali. But the rare trio of tragedies
represents just a fraction of the 93,500 daily airline flights
"Aviation safety is continuing to get better. A
sudden spate of accidents doesn't mean that the industry has suddenly
become less safe," says Paul Hayes, director of air safety for Ascend.
As global incomes rise, people in Southeast
Asia, Africa, Latin America, India and China want to travel more.
Airplane manufacturer Airbus says that while U.S. traffic is growing 2.4
per cent a year, emerging countries are seeing 13.2 per cent annual
In those countries, flying is often the only
option. Cities are remote. Adequate highways or railroads don't always
exist. New airlines have popped up, offering affordable flights to
satisfy this growing thirst for travel.
These carriers — many unheard of outside their
region — are adding new jets at a breakneck pace. In the next six years
alone, Indonesia's Lion Air will get 265 new planes and India's IndiGo
will receive 125, according to Bank of America.
"If an airline rapidly expands,"
Hayes says, the challenge of adding new staff and getting them to work
together properly "can increase risk."
Plane manufacturer Boeing estimates that within
20 years, the industry will need 498,000 new commercial airline pilots
and 556,000 new maintenance technicians. Finding enough skilled workers
to meet that demand isn't going to be easy.
Sherry Carbary, vice-president of Boeing Flight Services, says there is an "urgent demand for competent aviation personnel."
"This is a global issue, requiring industry-wide collaboration and innovative solutions," she says.
Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots
Association, the largest U.S. pilots' union, adds that strong oversight
by governments and trade groups is needed to ensure proper training.
"If you don't have a safe operation, then you're not going to have customers," Moak says.
Countries must also invest in the right
infrastructure. There needs to be proper radar coverage, runway landing
lights and beacons and skilled airport fire and rescue teams, says Todd
Curtis, director of the Airsafe.com Foundation. Developing regions, he
adds, also currently don't have enough airports that planes can divert
to in case of an emergency.
And when there is a crash with
survivors, having hospitals nearby with advanced trauma centres helps to
lower the number of fatalities. Nearly a third of all accidents since
1959 where the plane was destroyed still didn't have any deaths,
according to Boeing.
Technological improvements are also helping to
lower the accident rate. Cockpits now come with systems that
automatically warn if a jet is too low, about to hit a mountain or
another plane. Others detect sudden wind gusts that could make a landing
The next generation of technology promises to
help prevent even more accidents. Honeywell Aerospace launched a new
system 18 months ago that gives pilots better awareness about severe
turbulence, hail and lightning. The company is also developing a system
to improve pilots' vision in stormy weather: an infrared camera will let
them see runways through thick clouds earlier than the naked eye would.
"At the end of the day, we're a safety net.
We're there to help the flight crew," says Ratan Khatwa, senior chief
engineer for human factors at Honeywell.
The catch: While these advances would help a
generation of new pilots fly more safely, not all airlines are willing
to pay for the upgrades.
"The industry is very opposed, for cost reasons,
to retrofits," says James E. Hall, former chairman of the U.S. National
Transportation Safety Board. "You have a situation of the haves and the