Simon Calder: A little knowledge about plane crashes can be a dangerous thing

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The first reports of the crash at Tripoli airport broke in UK newsrooms at around 8.30am yesterday. Within three minutes a rumour had begun, fuelled by Twitter, that volcanic ash was responsible – even though the Libyan airport is many hundreds of miles from any significant concentrations. Within 10 minutes someone had pointed out, on an aviation forum, that the type of aircraft involved – an Airbus A330-200 – was the same as the Air France jet lost over the Atlantic between Rio and Paris almost a year ago.

In most respects high-speed communication benefits society, but not when it heightens fear and alarm, as these two instant responses are likely to do. Travellers' perceptions of risk are already quite distorted enough.

Each response appears superficially to have some merit. For the past month we have been warned about the threat posed by volcanic ash to airliners, and watched as threatening clouds of emissions have spread across Europe; on Tuesday, for the first time, North Africa was affected.

But the patches of ash are surrounded by extensive buffer zones (one reason, incidentally, for the large number of grounded flights this week), with no perceptible threat to Libya. And the coincidence of aircraft type? Since Comet, the world's first commercial jet, suffered a sequence of catastrophic failures, everyone from accident investigators to fearful flyers have sought to identify patterns in fatal crashes. But I would be most surprised if the painstaking investigation into Afriqiyah Airways flight 771 reveals any possible common cause with the Air France 447 disaster. The latter involved a jet flying at high altitude in foul weather; the former was at low altitude in clear visibility on approach to Tripoli.

You might think it harmless to err on the side of caution and mentally magnify the risks of flying. But a little knowledge about plane crashes can be a dangerous thing if you respond by inadvertently increasing your risk exposure. UK and Irish airlines are uncommonly safe: for example, Ryanair carries more people in a week than Afriqiyah Airways does in a year, and has not suffered a fatality in two decades of flying.

And while African airlines have a worse safety record, you would be far safer flying between Nairobi and Mombasa than risking the roads between Kenya's leading cities. I would gladly step aboard an Airbus A330 this morning – so long as I survived the journey to the airport.