Is Air Travel Still Safe?

Two days ago, a colleague of mine was on a flight from Cochin in India, to Colombo in Sri Lanka. And he related to me an experience that must have been horrible and harrowing for all passengers.

He was actually on the way to Bahrain from Cochin, via Colombo, after a short vacation. And according to him, passengers saw sparks and smoke on one of the wings of the Mihin Lanka plane, just a few minutes after take-off.

And while passengers went into a panic praying with bated breath, and while cabin crew ran around helter-skelter assuring the passengers it will be okay, the pilot turned the plane back to Cochin and, thankfully, landed safely, with no harm to anyone.

The plane had returned to ground in  40 minutes, but from the time the smoke was observed, minutes had seemed like ages to the scared passengers.

This happened just around the time the news came out, on Thursday morning, that Egypt Air flight MS804, from Paris to Cairo has gone missing.

Of course, sadly, we now know that it had met with a disastrous end, with all 66 people, on board, now, quite clearly, dead.  And some suspect that the smoke that was seen in the beginning could be the reason for the Egypt Air disaster.

Interestingly, I came across a BBC report related to this Egypt Air incident in which Capt. John Cox, a Fellow at the London-based Royal Aeronautical Society says, “Every year, there are about 900 to 1200 smoke-related incidents on aircraft in the US. If you double that number, you’ll get a rough global figure. The vast majority end perfectly safely, but fires have brought down planes”.

Apparently, Captain John Cox has been a pilot for 46 years, flew the Airbus A320 for six years and has spent the past 11 years investigating fires on planes.

So, coming from a man of that calibre, the news of smoke related incidents is not something I would like to hear. Or anyone would like to hear, for that matter.

As a frequent air traveller myself, and as a believer in the statistical fact that air travel is still the safest mode of transport for humans, I am still upset at the growing number of smoke cases.

Today, there is obviously an increasing reliance on air travel, around the world. The growing number of airlines and the growing number of aircraft tells us that there should, obviously, be a corresponding increase in the number of aircraft maintenance engineers and specialists in allied areas. I am not sure if it is that way.

In just about 115 years from the aircraft’s invention by the Wright Brothers, the number of planes in the sky has grown up to an alarmingly huge number. Thousands of planes are carrying millions of people to and from different parts of the world, at any given point of time.

One look at the website, will give us the amazing and shocking truth of air traffic congestion.

One Dr. Arnold Barnett, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has done extensive research in the field of commercial flight safety. He found that over the fifteen years between 1975 and 1994, the death risk per flight was ‘one in seven million’.

So, the odds are against an air-travel accident. But that was 20 years ago.  Maybe someone should do another study and reassure people like me!

We should not ignore the fact that chances of human error cannot be ruled out, with the growing number of aircraft. The question is whether the risk is still ‘one in seven million’!

I am confident, however, that if various governments’ civil aviation authorities streamline the safety and security procedures of aircraft organizations, and make them more rigorous, it is possible that our confidence will not be shaken.