Simon Calder: A safety record that is the envy of the world

The man who pays his way

January 1989 was a dark time in air travel. Just before Christmas, the worst act of mass murder on British territory took place as terrorists downed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie with the loss of 270 lives. Security at UK airports was stepped up, and some passengers checking in for US airlines were closely questioned before being allowed on board.

At Heathrow, on 8 January, check-in for British Midland Flight 92 to Belfast proceeded normally. But, soon after departure, the Boeing 737 hit an embankment on the M1 in Leicestershire. Forty-seven of the 126 people on board died. Kegworth, the name of a nearby village, was added to the lexicon of tragedy.

A quarter of a century on, the world looks very different – at least from the perspective of a passenger on a British airline. In the 25 years since the Kegworth disaster, no lives have been lost in an accident involving a UK-operated passenger jet. The prang involving a Boeing 747 taxiing at Johannesburg airport just before Christmas was most regrettable for the injuries to four people in the office building that was hit, but on the scale of aviation incidents that is scarcely worth more than a mention.

The past year was remarkably safe pretty much everywhere on the planet. However, in October, a Nigerian plane operated by Associated Airlines crashed on take-off from Lagos airport, killing all but four of the 20 people on board. And, in November, a Tatarstan Airlines Boeing 737 crashed on landing in the Russian city of Kazan, killing all 50 people on board. Sadly, the majority of crashes in the past decade have been in Africa and the former Soviet Union.

The nation whose air-safety record is the envy of the world is Britain. It is a tribute to pilots, engineers and air-traffic controllers that you and I have been kept so safe in the skies. So, how has it been achieved – and could it be under threat? The person to ask is Julien Evans, a retired Boeing 757/767 captain who now writes aviation-based crime thrillers, as well as the excellent How Airliners Fly (well worth the investment of some Christmas gift tokens).

He says that one very good reason for this increased and enviable position is that "compared to 30 or 40 years ago, aircraft are safer (and easier) to operate". The first specific improvement that he picks out is, basically, knowing where you are and what is happening when it all kicks off: "Navigational disorientation is much less likely in high-workload situations thanks to better data presentation".

The other enhancement is about human factors: "The effects of human fallibility have been reduced through improved crew selection, crew training and Cockpit Resource Management programmes." That last component, CRM, can be abbreviated to: teach the junior pilot to question the captain's judgement, and train the captain to accept such challenges.

Travel fatigue

So far, so good – but could the astonishing record be under threat because of another human factor, ie being exhausted? The European Aviation Safety Agency is implementing common standards on pilots' flying time across the EU. What's wrong with that? Well, while flight crew in some European nations will have their workload eased, other countries – including Britain – will see airlines given more leeway in scheduling pilots.

Balpa, the pilots' union, is a strident opponent, saying the new rules "would allow pilots to be flying aircraft while dangerously fatigued". Three specific examples are given: pilots will be legally allowed to land an aircraft having been awake for 22 hours; staffing for some longer flights, such as London to LA, will be cut, with the third pilot being jettisoned; and pilots could be forced to work up to seven early starts in a row.

Mr Evans says: "The danger arising from fatigue is that those experiencing it may not be aware that their mental faculties are impaired because higher mental functions, including self-assessment, are degraded by fatigue."

The former captain is also concerned about the move away from the basics in pilot training. He says that "over-reliance on automated and computerised systems probably contributed to the AF447 accident," in which an Air France Airbus A330 flying from Rio to Paris stalled and crashed into the South Atlantic.

The constant pressure on costs also causes Mr Evans concern. A "zero-hours" contract for a call-centre worker is one thing; for pilots, and cabin crew the concept is worrying. "Persons who are under stress, financially or for other reasons, should not be sitting in pilots' seats."

Space: the final frontier

The last person to whom you would want to entrust your safety in the air is probably me, but allow me to suggest one improvement: free up more air space. A significant proportion of the sky is still the preserve of the RAF. From my experience of rambling through parts of rural England, Wales and Scotland, it seems definitely a good idea to have some areas of the skies restricted to very fast jets flying at an altitude of about 10 feet. But, as the Davies Commission observed, when straying beyond its brief to sort out the airports muddle: "NATS and the Ministry of Defence should continue to work together to agree a strategy for ensuring airspace is only closed for military use when it is absolutely required."

Increasing the amount of available airspace would also allow more direct routings to save time, money and the planet. Which looks like a good resolution for the aviation industry.

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