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
Jerry Seinfeld Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
peopleSitcom star urges men to be more supportive of women than ever
Life and Style
Living for the moment: Julianne Moore playing Alzheimer’s sufferer Alice
Jay Z
businessJay-Z's bid for Spotify rival could be blocked
footballLouis van Gaal is watching a different Manchester United and Wenger can still spring a surprise
The spider makes its break for freedom
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

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot