The Big Question: Is there any evidence that airlines are cutting back on safety?
Wednesday 27 August 2008
Why are we asking this now?
Because the aviation industry is suffering badly at the moment. Financially, it is in for a very difficult winter. High fuel prices have bitten hard, while cash-strapped consumers are expected to travel by air in far fewer numbers at the end of the year.
The situation is so bad that the industry is expected to see a greater fall in capacity than it suffered in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York, with 60 million fewer seats being offered during the last quarter of this year compared with 2007.
On top of its financial woes, there have been a series of high-profile accidents in recent months. First, a huge slice of the undercarriage of a Qantas aircraft fell away while the plane was in mid-air, sending luggage and debris hurtling to the ground. Then earlier this month, more than 150 people were killed when a Spanair MD-82 plane careered off the runway in Madrid on take-off and burst into flames. It was the first aviation accident to hit Spain in 25 years.
Then on Monday night, a plane owned by the budget airline Ryanair en route to Barcelona was forced to make an emergency landing after it lost cabin pressure. The combination of cash-strapped airlines and the occurrence of some high-profile safety incidents has raised fears that the tough economic climate is causing the aviation industry to cut back on safety measures.
What caused the incidents?
There is no common theme among the recent accidents. Little is yet known about the Madrid plane crash, but witnesses said its left engine was ablaze as it attempted a second take-off.
Safety analysts have pointed to the fact that the plane was almost at top speed on the runway before careering into woodland. That hints at either a further system failure, or even human error.
Both the Ryanair and Qantas incidents involved a loss of cabin pressure. Though they are a very scary incident for those involved, it is actually very unlikely for anyone to be seriously hurt in such an incident. As a result, the air safety expert David Learmount said that "sudden decompressions are seriously frightening, but hardly ever dangerous. The only people who love them are journalists".
Are airlines spending less on maintenance?
According to analysts at the Official Airline Guide (OAG), the amount spent on Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) could fall by 15 per cent by 2009. But that is from a high base – the spending has been rising by about three per cent every year since 2003. Most importantly, the fall in capacity in the world's aviation industry will mean the world's fleet will shrink. Fewer planes to service will naturally result in a fall in maintenance spending. Further down the road, though, analysts have raised concerns that MRO spending might not go back up as quickly as capacity increases. "We expect new aircraft will drive the growth, and the resulting 'honeymoon effect' of low maintenance requirements could keep MRO spend down," said Steve Casley, from OAG.
Has anyone raised concerns?
Engineers raised concerns earlier this year that planes were being allowed to fly back to home bases carrying minor faults and that pilots were being given responsibility for checks, instead of trained engineers. But the UK's aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, runs regular inspections and says that it would act if it found any evidence of wrongdoing.
How stringent are safety regulations?
In the developed world, very tight. Planes are so closely examined that we already know a great deal about the Ryanair plane involved in Monday's incident. We know it was five years old; had been last serviced a month ago; and had successfully accumulated 17,300 hours in the air.
After the Spanair incident last week, fears were raised over the model of plane involved – a Boeing MD-82. Much was made of the fact that American Airlines grounded its fleet of MD-80 series planes in March to make safety checks. But looking at statistics at a whole, the model is not disproportionately affected by accidents. About 300 people have been killed in accidents involving the model over the past three years, but the vast majority of those come from parts of the world with less-developed regulatory systems in place.
In fact, the Spanair accident in Madrid surprised safety analysts most of all because it was the first accident involving a large jet in a major developed country since 2001.
So is flying unsafe?
Pictures beamed around the world of the wreckages left behind by a crashed plane are powerful and prey on the fears that many people already have about flying, even before they board a plane. But by any measure, air travel is a very safe form of transport – even after the tragedies that have hit it in 2008. Anyone travelling to Spain for a late holiday is far more likely to be involved in a traffic accident once they arrive there than be involved in a plane crash.
One has to go back almost 20 years to find a major aeroplane accident affecting a British airline. It was in 1989 when a Boeing 737 crashed next to the M1 motorway in Kegworth, Leicestershire, killing 47 people. Since then, the stringent safety regime run by airlines and the Civil Aviation Authority has reigned supreme. Roads in this country are much more dangerous. About 3,000 people are killed on the nation's highways each year.
Are new measures being put into place?
Law-makers in America are planning to tighten safety regulations even further. The "Aviation Safety Bill of 2008", which is awaiting approval by the Senate in the US, would create a new office with the country's aviation industry regulator – the Federal Aviation Administration – that would deal with safety concerns. It would also introduce measures to stop inspectors becoming too cosy with the airlines they are inspecting.
What will happen to the airline industry?
There is no doubt that the airline industry is entering a period of massive change. One analyst said the next 18 months would be "unlike any other period in the history of the aviation industry".
But while all budgets will be shrinking, that will be accompanied by a reduction of fleets. We will see much more link-ups between airlines as they attempt to cut costs. The number of major airlines in Europe will fall dramatically.
It may also spell the end of the budget airline. Michael O'Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, remains determined that he will not introduce increased charges to passengers, but some analysts have challenged the ultimate viability of such a strategy. Something has to give. But if it comes to it, it will be the £1 air fare that will be sacrificed, rather than safety measures.
Is the financial squeeze affecting air safety?
* Recent incidents have raised passenger concerns about maintenance cuts
* Maintenance spending is predicted to fall, but this has much to do with smaller fleets
* It is more of a concern in developing countries, where regulatory bodies are far weaker
* Airlines will cope with the squeeze through fare rises and mergers – not cutting safety
* Air travel is still much safer than other forms of transport
* There hasn't been a major accident involving a British aircraft since 1989
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