THE INDIAN AIR CRASH: Fears grow in a bad year for aviation safety

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Flying is still the safest way to travel, but 1996 has been one of the worst years ever for air crashes. Tuesday's crash over India that killed more than 350 people is the fifth air disaster in a month, the twelfth this year and the tenth involving Western aircraft. The death toll is more than 1,700 this year - nearly 1,200 in Western-built aircraft: the grimmest for air safety in over a decade. "It's turning into a very bad year" said Mike Reed, of Airclaims, a London-based loss adjusters.

Many pressures bode ill for airline safety including the increase in traffic, which leads to aeroplanes flying closer together in the skies. The number of aircraft flying has increased steadily in the last decade. The number of Western-built jets has increased from 7,097 in 1986 to 11,425 in 1995. In other words, we have the makings of a traffic jam in the air with no shoulder to pull over on to.

Suggestions are being floated to narrow the vertical space between aircraft from 2,000ft to 1,000ft. Tests are being conducted at 29,000ft over the North Sea this year to determine if 1,000ft is safe enough. . A decision is expected from aviation authorities early next year. The two aircraft which collided in India were told to close to 1,000ft: for reasons as yet unclear, it was not enough..

The number of fatal accidents has not increased as fast as the number of aircraft. But the number of deaths this year, 1,187, has been by far the worst since 1985, when there were 1,537.

Another reason suggested for the high number of air accidents is the advanced age of some planes being flown. Many of the poorer nations in the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union have aircraft much older than the 20 or so years that most experts prefer. Proper maintenance can extend the life of aeroplanes but there has been some question as to the level of maintenance in such countries.

Another worrying aspect of lies in the lack of expertise in air traffic control and equipment in countries in Africa and Asia. Such nations lack the money for all the proper equipment and training for air traffic controllers. Many airports lack the people or the hardware to guide planes down safely, leaving the pilots to guide themselves. Global positioning systems telling the pilots exactly where they are will help, but they are not yet universal.

Carolyn Evans, technical secretary for the British Air Line Pilot Association, said one of her main concerns is the lack of uniformity between the communication systems of aircraft in the former Soviet Union. The communication radar systems, called transponders, "talk" to each other and signal vital information to pilots, without the crews having to talk to each other. The problem, according to Ms Evans, is the that former Soviet transponders don't "talk" to the rest of the world's aeroplanes and are not fully visible on air traffic controllers' screens. This means that procedural, or non-radar control, is then necessary.

Additionally, the former Soviet aeroplanes' altimeters are calibrated in metres, while the rest of the world uses feet. This could have the reason behind Tuesday's catastrophe. Ms Evans said BALPA had lobbied the Civil Aviation Authority to standardise the equipment.

A system that could make aircraft safer should they find themselves in air space outside the reach of radar control towers will be mandatory in the UK by 2000. The system, called Airborne Collision Avoidance System, is already mandatory in the United States. It would make it possible for one plane with the system to be able to communicate with another plane that did not have the system as long as it had a transponder.