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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
people
Sport
FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Sport
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
athletics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
music
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
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

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam