Summer's here and the peak holiday season brings a wealth of scare stories about aircraft safety. Are things really as bad as they say? By Harvey Elliott
AUGUST MARKS the peak month for holiday charter flights from Britain - and the height of anxiety for some of the people who are on board.

What a ghastly month July has been for flying: besides the death of a Kennedy at the controls of his private aircraft, a Japanese pilot was stabbed to death by a hijacker and 17 passengers died last weekend when a domestic flight in Fiji crashed. And air traffic controllers are up in arms about the prospect of privatising the skies above Britain. Just the sort of thing to make you nervous if you are about to set foot on a plane.

On 10 July, The Daily Mail devoted three pages to scaring the daylights out of anyone contemplating boarding an airliner. "Are you frightened of flying? You ought to be," were the first two sentences of the article about a new book.

Similarly, one BBC Panorama programme was devoted to a terrifying examination of the potential for fire in civil jetliners from a particular form of electrical wiring. Viewers were warned that an additional 65,000 aircraft were to be "squeezed into Britain's overcrowded skies" and that "it is a matter of time before a mid-air collision occurs in UK airspace".

There is no doubt that the scare stories are lapped up by readers and viewers. But why? Kieran Daly, of Air Transport Intelligence, believes it is because we can no longer judge levels of risk.

"We seem to forget the fantastic extent that air travel has grown, and yet the incredibly small number of accidents there are," he said. "The industry has only been in existence for about 45 years, and yet we have reached the position where, in the Western world, there are now virtually no accidents at all. It is a truly amazing statistic."

The figures bear him out. In 1998, far more than 160 million passengers used British airports - 8.1 per cent up on the previous year. The number of "near misses" attributable to air-traffic control was six, compared with 11 the previous year and 16 in 1996 and, overall, Britain had an accident-free year despite a sharp increase in the number of flights. No one died in a commercial airline accident. Indeed, the last fatal accident involving a British registered aircraft happened on 24 May 1995, when a Knight Air Bandierante crashed near Leeds, with the loss of nine passengers and three crew.

Before that, the last British airliner crash took place in January 1989. Forty-seven people died when a British Midland Boeing 737 crashed on the M1 near Kegworth.

In 1998, throughout the world, there were eight fatal accidents to Western-built jets, and 737 people died. One third of these were killed in a single Swissair crash off Nova Scotia - an accident which, the Panorama programme said, might have been caused by faulty wiring. Yet in that same year, 3,421 people died as a result of accidents on the roads of Great Britain alone. And there were twice as many air deaths in 1994, when there was substantially less air traffic.

"It is unfortunate, but people like to read about dramatic deaths," said Dr Helen Muir, professor of Aerospace Psychology at the Cranfield College of Aeronautics. "When there is an air crash, it is a single event of great drama. But people don't die in large numbers in single car crashes. Paradoxically, when flying was perceived as dangerous, no one wanted to be reminded about it. Now it is so much safer, people are increasingly interested and want to know more."

But the concentration on safety scares has in turn led to the media becoming alienated from the aviation industry, and therefore, cut off from even obtaining, let alone accurately reporting, the facts.

As Carolyn Evans, Technical Secretary of the pilots union, BALPA, admitted: "We now try to avoid talking to the press because they simply ignore the facts and twist everything into an over-hyped scare. Luckily, this is not putting off pilots and engineers from joining the profession, but it is worrying passengers. And when they are scared and worried they turn to drink, and therefore, become more likely to show symptoms of so-called 'air rage'."

Mike Hodgkinson, BAA's Group Airports director, even claims that delays indicate better, not less, safety. "Where there are delays, they are not safety issues," he said, "they are the consequences of people taking safety very seriously and responsibly." And, Captain Colin Sharples, Group Safety Director of the world's biggest charter airline, Britannia, is horrified at the often-repeated suggestion that charter flights and aircraft are somehow less "safe" than their equivalents on scheduled flights. Britannia has not suffered a fatal accident for more than 31 years.

"The charter industry flies more modern aeroplanes than most scheduled airlines," Sharples explained. "They are fitted with the latest equipment and we spend a very great deal of money on both equipment and training to ensure we remain safe." And it is clearly in the aviation industry's interests to spend whatever is necessary to ensure that flying remains safe. As those involved in the airline business say: "If you think safety is expensive, try having an accident."