Simon Calder: Low pressure in the skies leads to high anxiety
Saturday 30 August 2008
Four out of five British travellers say they could walk alone and unaided to the North Pole with nothing more substantial than a chunky-knit jumper and a pocket full of Kendal mint cake. Even by the standards of some of the travel surveys that emerge during the dog days of August, that is tosh. But how about the statistic that was cited in the aftermath of a diverted Ryanair flight this week? "Well over 80 per cent of people on that flight knew they were going to die."
That interesting figure was provided on Radio 4's Today programme by one of Britain's bravest men, the polar explorer Pen Hadow. The first man to walk alone and unaided to the North Pole knows all about confronting unfavourable odds. And Mr Hadow happened to be travelling on flight FR9336 from Bristol to Girona in northern Spain on Monday evening, over central France, when what Ryanair calls "a depressurisation incident" took place.
Understandably, passengers' sensibilities are heightened following the tragedy 10 days ago at Madrid. Fear is an inevitable result when without warning an aircraft starts descending briskly; the profile of the humble oxygen mask suddenly changes from being a sideshow in the pre-flight safety demonstration to an in-your-face provider of life support. Or not, according to Mr Hadow: "No oxygen was delivered through oxygen masks," he told Today. Perhaps the reason was, as Mr Hadow speculated, "there was some protocol that meant the pilot took the view that it was not appropriate to allow the oxygen to be released into the oxygen masks".
Now, I should no more be allowed anywhere near the controls of an aircraft than permitted to attempt Everest, but perhaps the oxygen started flowing normally – as it was designed to do as soon as the mask is deployed and the passenger gives it a gentle tug – but in the inevitable kerfuffle where 168 people find themselves having to learn an entirely new practice in stressful circumstances, Mr Hadow may have misinterpreted how the system works. The clear plastic bladder through which the gas flows is not intended to inflate. The fact that 100 per cent of the passengers and crew walked safely off the plane when it landed in the French city of Limoges suggests that no one was starved of oxygen.
Much has been said of the fact that no information was initially provided about what was happening, nor did cabin crew patrol the aircraft checking everyone was able to use the masks. Yet on the most routine flight to Spain you are in an extreme environment – at about the height of Everest, with an outside temperature of around -50C. Standard operating procedure in the event of possible depressurisation is, unsurprisingly, to lose height as quickly as is safely achievable, and to land at the nearest airport.
Personally, I would rather the captain and first officer got on with these tasks before soothing the nerves of passengers. And, if things are going to get tricky near the ground, I would rather be on a plane where the cabin crew were fully conscious, which involves them sitting and breathing oxygen rather than walking up and down.
Most of the passengers boarded a replacement Boeing, which Ryanair sent from Stansted (no mean achievement at midnight on a Bank Holiday Monday). In a display of care that was uncharacteristically generous, the airline offered anyone who had suffered discomfort or who simply did not want to fly the chance to stay overnight in Limoges at Ryanair's expense, and travel by coach the following day.
I hope the passengers were warned that, statistically, the road trip across the Pyrenees would be significantly riskier than flying. A better bet would be the beautiful train ride from Limoges via Toulouse and across the mountains to Barcelona. But some anxious passengers could misinterpret the sign that stands over the entrance to Limoges' handsome Bénédictins station: "Depart", wreathed in flowers and above the face of an angel.
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