August 22, 2008

Why There’s No Need to Panic About Safety on Board a Plane

By Simon Calder

None of the terrifying events that took place at Madrid airport on Wednesday will make us any less safe, and I write that as a traveller about to board a flight. Many things are wrong with flying but safety is not one of them.

Even in the aftermath of the Spanair MD-82 crash experts pointed to the rarity of take-off accidents and to the fact that Europe had been free of major plane disasters in recent years.

Take-offs and landings are seen as the critical times for planes and their cockpit crews.

Kieran Daly, editor of Air Transport Intelligence, said "Take- off accidents are very, very rare. You reach a point in take-off when it is unlikely that anything can go wrong but if things do go wrong, they can go wrong very quickly.

"On take-off, pilots reach a point of no return, known as V1 speed, which is usually reached about two seconds before take-off.

"If you go above V1 and abort the take-off, there is insufficient room at the end of the runway and there is the chance of going off the end of the runway at a very fast speed and things can then go very badly wrong.

"The normal rule is that if you go beyond V1 and something goes wrong, you take off anyway. If, for example, a tyre blew, you would take off.

"A problem at the point of take-off is very challenging for the pilot. If something happens at the point of V1, he is committed to taking off.

"If there is an engine failure at this point, he is flying an aircraft at very low speed."

The lessons learned from the wretched demise of another jet aircraft, will in time, enhance safety.

The tradition - no, obsession - with studying the causes of plane crashes means safety officials in airlines and manufacturers will eliminate yet more risks.

The pictures of this week's air disaster at Madrid will etch themselves on many minds - of the families of the victims of this tragedy, naturally - but also of airline passengers in general, frequent or fearful.

But the scale of the loss of life in an instant of sheer catastrophe needs to be balanced against the risks in other forms of transport.

During the next few days, the number of passengers who died aboard JK5022 at Madrid will be equalled by fatalities on Spanish roads. Tragedies all of them, and incidentally the likeliest way for British visitors to perish in our favourite foreign country. Yet these awful events are never aggregated.

Perhaps if they were, we might stop driving; meanwhile, the scenes in Madrid may needlessly deter some people from flying.

The train of thought that begins with, "it could have been me", is another cause of our morbid fascination, even though the chances of the average Brit being aboard a domestic flight between the Spanish capital and the business centre of the Canary Islands are minimal.

When a train crashes in India with greater loss of life, no one here imagines themselves aboard the stricken carriages.

Nor does the BBC News website see fit to put up a "disasters timeline", as it did within minutes of the crash at Madrid.

No criticism of the corporation: it was meeting our demand to know more about the propensity of aircraft to fall out of the sky, or fail to get off the ground.

"Planes that you or I are likely to find ourselves on don't crash," I said in an interview recently. The appalling scenes in Spain do not alter that point of view.

I happen to be writing these words while en route to Salzburg airport, where I shall board a flight that will fly safely to Stansted. The risky bit of the journey will be cycling home.

I suspect the force persuading us to look at every image and read every word of the reports is more deep-rooted: somehow the belief persists that heavier-than-air machines are somehow defying the laws of physics.

Although it is of no comfort to the families of the victims to hear this, tens of millions of safe flights each year show that view is nonsense.

The last event involving a British airline with substantial loss of life took place in 1989, when a British Midland 737 crashed at Kegworth en route to Belfast International Airport.

Since then, the industry has been obsessed with safety, for which I shall feel grateful when I board that Boeing.

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