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.

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker