Simon Calder: Air France tragedy calls for real risk assessment

By Tuesday morning, media intrusion of grieving relatives at Paris's main airport had become so intensive that Air France felt obliged to send a message to editors: please keep reporters and camera crews away from the hotels around Charles de Gaulle.

Twenty-four hours earlier, the first distressing murmurs about flight AF447 from Rio to Paris had begun to emerge when the Airbus A330 failed to make landfall after crossing the Atlantic. Ninety minutes after the flight was due to arrive in Paris, the airline was forced to conclude that the aircraft and the 228 people on board had been lost; the fuel tanks would have run dry.

As dreadful realisation spread among the families of the passengers and the colleagues of the crew, the media converged on Charles de Gaulle. They began to cover the unfolding tragedy, and the endless speculation about the causes of the disaster, just as they did nine summers ago when an Air France Concorde bound for New York crashed shortly after take-off from the airport, killing all 109 on board and four people on the ground.

The lives of the relatives and friends of those who died – including five British and three Irish passengers – have been shattered. And even among travellers with no connection to the victims, the AF447 loss could reawaken anxieties about flying. Until last Monday, the concept of a western European airliner disappearing in mid-ocean seemed inconceivable, the kind of event that did not happen in the 21st century. The investigation into why the Air France plane apparently fell out of the sky will be slow and painstaking. Should travellers change their behaviour ? I called Dr Todd Curtis, flight safety guru and founder of the website

Some readers have contacted the travel desk questioning the wisdom of flying the Atlantic in an A330 or similar twin-engined jet rather than a four-engined plane such as a Boeing 747. An Air France 747 on the same route a couple of hours earlier safely made the journey to Paris. And Virgin Holidays once promoted its four-engined aircraft using slogans such as "We like four engines across the Big Pond", and "We think two engines are a bit stingy". But Dr Curtis does not believe that travelling on a twin-engined jet is inherently risky:

"Engine reliability is so high that a simultaneous or near-simultaneous independent failure of two engines is a very, very unlikely event. While it is possible that a catastrophic failure of one engine can lead to damage to a second, for example debris from an uncontained failure taking out a second engine, there have been no such events I am aware of from the history of dual-engine passenger jet transports."

Few people have flown as far as the Lonely Planet founder, Tony Wheeler. Had he ever encountered an engine failure? "On the one occasion I've had one [on a 747] I spoke to the captain afterwards and he said it was the first he'd ever had."

Air France is still selling tickets on AF447 departures from Rio to Paris; on the UK website the flights are among the special offers on display. And I would be a willing buyer at £499 return: not on the principle that "lightning never strikes twice", but because if the highly professional Air France crew are prepared to operate the aircraft I am content to be their passenger. It is of no comfort to the grieving families of those missing, presumed dead, but flying remains singularly safe. Even in parts of the world where aviation is disproportionately risky, such as areas of Africa and the former Soviet Union, road travel is so dangerous that flying is a much safer bet.

"Bet" is the key to air safety. Life is a matter of managing probabilities. To minimise the already tiny risks of flying, opt for a non-stop hop rather than connecting services, to cut down on the critical stages of flights – take-off and landing. And while all western European carriers have excellent safety records, the airlines of two nations stand out as exceptional: the UK and Ireland.

Airlines from the British Isles collectively carry far more people than those from any other part of Europe. For the past 20 years they have flown jets around Europe and the world formidably safely. During that time, around 75,000 people have sadly died on the roads of the British Isles.

The corresponding figure for passengers involved in plane crashes with UK and Irish airlines: zero.

Taking chances on the road

Risk was an underlying theme of Jeremy Vine's Radio 2 programme on Tuesday. He conducted a heart-rending interview with the wife of one of the passengers on AF447, who had yet to accept her husband had perished.

Vine also spoke to a survivor of the International Brigade, who went to fight Franco's fascists in the Spanish Civil War – and who understands far more about risk than you or I ever will. And, towards the end of the programme he posed the question "Could hitch-hiking be undergoing a resurgence?" He talked to the travel writer Robin Gauldie, who said, "There is a safety issue for anybody hitch-hiking. It's usually the hitch-hiker who's more at risk from the driver than the other way around," though no evidence was offered to support this assertion.

By far the biggest risk a hitcher takes is of being in a vehicle involved in a crash. Road accident rates are falling across Europe. Therefore it is not unreasonable to claim that hitch-hiking has never been safer.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor