Simon Calder: You're still safer up there than down here
Saturday 26 July 2008
This perfect storm, or so the airlines believed until yesterday, had three dimensions: the unprecedented price of oil; weakening demand from cash-strapped holidaymakers and businesses; and reluctance among the banks to shore up ailing carriers.
Qantas flight 30 has added a damaging fourth component to the mix: fear.
Reports asserted that, "a jumbo jet plummeted 20,000 feet" prior to an emergency landing at Manila. That, I imagine, would be a terrifying experience. Fortunately for the passengers and crew en route from Hong Kong to Melbourne, it did not happen. Standard practice when the cabin pressure drops is to deploy oxygen masks and descend swiftly and safely. That is what the pilots did. The fact that everyone on board disembarked normally gives the measure of this far-from-catastrophic event.
However, that may not be how the fearful passenger sees it. Travellers may conclude that one of the surest bets in aviation – the perfect safety record of Australia's national airline – has come to an end. Twenty years ago, Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man helped to perpetrate the myth with his assertion that "Qantas never crashed". In fact, the carrier has suffered a number of accidents, but none has been fatal. It shares this commendable fatality-free record with many other airlines, including some that carry far more passengers.
The lesson that travellers should take from yesterday's descent is just how implausibly safe aviation has become. Planes don't crash any more – at least not the flights that you or I are likely to find ourselves on board. Britain's roads are among the safest in the world – yet the death toll for motorists in the UK is equivalent to the loss of a full Boeing 747 every six weeks.
No other industry is so tightly regulated, nor staffed with such safety-conscious people, as aviation. Life in the danger zone? Take a spin on the M1. But to prolong your life expectancy, take off.
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