Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Why flying is still the safest way to travel
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Beautiful, tragic Colombia: the sadnesses that converge on South America's most alluring country seem never-ending. The nation spent much of the late 20th century tearing itself apart, and the violence has continued into the third millennium. From the average traveller's perspective, the stunning Caribbean beaches, dramatic mountain scenery and fascinating culture simply do not justify the risks. And that view will have strengthened after yet another crash this week involving a Colombian aircraft.

The West Caribbean Airways jet was flying from Panama City to the French island of Martinique when it crashed in Venezuela, but it has not escaped the attention of many that the airline is based in Colombia's second city, Medellin. For as long as I can remember, planes flying to, from or within that benighted country have been involved in way too many accidents: pilot error, mechanical failure and terrorism have all taken their terrible toll. No angels watch over Colombia.

FOLLOWING THE series of plane crashes this month, you would be forgiven for concluding that airline passengers need a guardian spirit. After Air France lost an Airbus A330 - but happily no lives - at Toronto, three fatal accidents ensued. Helios Airways flight ZU 522 crashed mysteriously in Greece; a Tunisair prop-jet came down in the Mediterranean; and, worst of all, 160 passengers died aboard the West Caribbean plane. The sequence brings echoes of the autumn of 2001, when evil and misfortune perpetrated a succession of disasters. But before you vow to stick to terrestrial transportation instead, bear in mind a couple of facts. First, the number of deaths worldwide in aviation this August is about the same as a month's toll on the roads in Britain - one of the safest countries on the planet. And British Airways is about to mark 20 years of accident-free flying.

"I KNOW many people, including my own family, who are naturally afraid of flying," says one of the most important figures in air safety. He is Geoff Want, director of safety for British Airways. "Some people find it a fascinating, lovely experience, whereas others feel being in a tube is an unnatural thing to do." Yet talking to Mr Want about the lessons learned from the accident on 22 August 1985 proves reassuring.

The Boeing 737, in the colours of British Airtours, caught fire on the runway in Manchester after part of an engine exploded and punctured a fuel tank. The accident on Juliet Lima (representing the last two letters of its registration code) killed 53 of the 131 passengers and two cabin crew.

"Juliet Lima was basically a survivable accident," says Mr Want. "There was another incident in Canada, a 737 that had a fire which had a similar effect on the cabin and everybody got out."

One difference was that the passengers on the Canadian jet were nearly all frequent flyers, and therefore had far greater awareness of accident drills than once-a-year charter passengers. So British Airways began working to enhance the safety briefing: "Using videos to do it is a far more powerful medium."

Evacuation techniques were made much safer and faster as a direct result of Juliet Lima, says Mr Want. "The crew on that aeroplane didn't have the PA to use"; today, the public-address system works from batteries if the engines stop. Access to over-wing emergency exits was widened and the seats around them strengthened: "In the accident people went over the seats, and collapsed seats caused more fatalities." The coverings and foam in the seats produced toxic fumes: "Fire retardants and the lack of toxicity in those sorts of materials became standard very quickly."

One other repercussion for British Airways of Juliet Lima was that a large part of its short-haul fleet was grounded for two months while remaining Boeing 737s were checked. "There was never any doubt in the company that it was the right thing to do. It's part of our reputation that if faced with that type of decision we will always take the hard decision."

West Sussex Snapshot

The longer the journey, the greater the rewards. For the train at dawn on Tuesday, the 24 stops between London Victoria and Bognor Regis were not enough, so a guest halt was made at Faygate in West Sussex. This enabled us to savour the ghostly mist of an August morning in England's green and pleasant land.

The line that leads to the place where William Blake wrote "Jerusalem" makes a diagonal stroke across West Sussex. It is like a trip through the 19th century, rattling through stations with lyrical names - Christ's Hospital, Arundel, Amberley - and across a landscape dabbed on by an impressionist: green and gold laced with violet, and studded with farms of weary, auburn brick.

The end of the line has long been disappointing; Blake's poetic legacy was crushed beneath the bulk of Butlins. Yet the Shoreline Hotel (left), the latest Butlins property, is an impressive addition to the South Coast: built with echoes of the art deco De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, it resembles an ocean liner. With luck it will keep Butlins on course for another lifetime of holidays.