Safety first: a landmark anniversary for US aviation

They were having a laugh at Heathrow's Terminal 3 on Tuesday. BAA, the company that owns Europe's busiest airport, had just announced bumper earnings - making it "more profitable than all the UK airlines put together", according to the Ryanair boss, Michael O'Leary. And someone with a sense of humour was sending out scary messages to anxious passengers.

BAA didn't become handsomely profitable by over-staffing its security checkpoints. So I had a good 20 minutes in which to enjoy the music pumped out to entertain the queues.

The joker who chooses the tunes was clearly trying to tell us something. He or she had selected a collection of the Rolling Stones' greatest hits. "Let's Spend The Night Together" was apt for passengers boarding the eastbound long-hauls to Australia, though its sentiments may have discomfited travellers from more conservative cultures about to board flights on Kuwait Airways and Air India.

Next up, "2,000 Light Years From Home" hardly inspired confidence for an on-time departure, and the opening line of "Honky Tonk Women" clearly contained a subliminal message urging passengers to stock up on Gordon's at the duty-free shop: "I met a gin-soaked bar-room queen in Memphis". But was it really necessary to subject nervous travellers to a couple of tunes of worrying finality? "This could be the last time/ Maybe the last time", echoes the chorus of - you guessed it - "The Last Time".

Thankfully, I reached the head of the queue before the artistes switched to Nazareth ("Turn this crazy bird around/ I shouldn't have got on this flight tonight"), or the Everly Brothers: "My Ebony Eyes was coming to me from out of the sky on Flight 1203" - even if you don't know the song, you can probably deduce the tragic punchline.

At around the time the Everly Brothers enjoyed aeronautical chart success with "Ebony Eyes", aviation was far more fraught with danger. For evidence of how much safer flying has become, take a guess at the last time a big US passenger jet suffered a fatal crash.

The answer after a brief musical interlude. Who chooses the hold music played to prospective travellers? For example, if you experience a problem on a Scottish train, and you call ScotRail customer relations, you are likely to find yourself listening to "Walk On By"; while people waiting to book a Monarch flight may change their mode of transport once they have listened through Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car".

Next Friday is a significant date in the US airline world. The answer to the question earlier is: 12 November 2001, the date when an American Airlines Airbus A300 plunged into housing in the New York borough of Queens shortly after take-off from JFK airport. Five people on the ground were killed, as well as the 260 passengers and crew. The event was the last in a dreadful sequence of airline disasters in 2001, notably the hijack of the four aircraft on September 11. Yet by Friday it will be three years since the last fatal crash. When you consider that more than two billion people have flown on US airlines in that time, it is an extraordinary record.

"I can find no other period since the beginning of the jet age in the 1960s where there have been three years without a fatal event involving a US carrier," says Dr Todd Curtis, one of America's leading air-safety experts. He is the founder of, and principal of the AirSafe Foundation.

What explains this dramatic improvement in safety? One obvious answer is the improved security measures in place since 11 September. But Curtis thinks the reasons are subtler; he claims that better technology and management are combining to keep travellers safe.

"For US carriers, most fatal events over the last two decades have been due to issues that have been addressed by new technologies such as enhanced ground-proximity warning systems or changes to operational philosophies, such as crew resource management, that enhance the ability of flight and cabin crews to deal with situations that threaten the aircraft."

Such enhancements tend to be slow, cumulative, and largely out of sight of the public. They stem from the extremely high regard within the airline industry for learning from mistakes of the past. Those lessons, says Curtis, "get reflected in aircraft design, aircraft operations, and the regulation of the industry". Crucially, easier communications - principally the internet - mean that information and ideas can be shared much more easily. The aviation industry is like few others in the venom with which companies compete, but industry insiders never seek to gain an edge by keeping rivals in the dark on safety issues. And with the internet, engineers and pilots worldwide can communicate far more easily. "The internet has been a transformational technology that is absolutely compatible with the safety philosophy of the aviation community," says Curtis.

Afraid of flying? Rationally, you should worry more about being struck by lightning. If you are an anxious flyer, you might like to know that 4 January is the only day of the year on which there has never been a fatal air crash somewhere in the world - though I'm not quite sure how that information can be of use. Meanwhile, back in Terminal 3, Mick Jagger is cheerfully demanding "I wanna see the sun blotted out from the sky" in "Paint It, Black". And if that were not worrying enough, how about "It's All Over Now"?

Some travellers still labour under the misapprehension that no-frills airlines skimp on safety to cut costs. Proof to the contrary is Southwest Airlines - the original no-frills carrier. Never mind three years of safety: Southwest has just celebrated 33 fatality-free years. And arch cost-cutter Michael O'Leary of Ryanair draws the line at anything that could affect safety: "You don't have a business unless it's safe."


The Royal National Institute for the Blind this week closed both its hotels, the Palm Court in Eastbourne and the Century in Blackpool (right), which were designed and managed for blind and partially sighted guests. "Over the years fewer people have been taking holidays at the hotels," said a spokesman for the RNIB. "Regretfully we cannot sustain these losses."

It's tempting to find this news depressing, but I hope that both establishments have reached the end of their useful lives thanks to advances in facilities for blind and partially sighted customers at hotels that aim at a wider clientele - and that many previous guests are travelling further afield, aided by falling costs.