Simon Calder: There was no miracle in Toronto

What enabled the survival of the people aboard was much more mundane
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The Independent Online

"It's a miracle." Jean Lapierre should be in a position to judge such matters, because he is Canada's Transport Minister. But his conclusion shows so little grasp of aviation safety that he perhaps should consider a new faith-based career in the church. There was nothing miraculous about the escape of all 309 people on board AF358 when it skidded off the runway at Toronto. Airline passengers should feel glad about that because marvels rarely turn up when you need them. What enabled the survival of the people aboard the Airbus from Paris was much more mundane: the excellent planning and execution of an emergency evacuation.

The passengers and crew aboard the Airbus A340 performed brilliantly in leaving the aircraft before it was engulfed in flames. If you want to read anything supernatural into this happy conclusion to an unhappy crash, you could bestow the Airbus A340 with a charmed life. Since it entered service 12 years ago, coincidentally with Air France, this beautiful aircraft has suffered not a single fatal accident. Its near-identical twin, the A330, and the Boeing 777 and 717 share the same superb safety record. But the A340 has been in service longest, so it could be said to be the safest aircraft in the world.

Investigators will be looking for months at what went wrong at Canada's busiest airport. The discoveries they make will lead to safeguards that should reduce the risk of any repetition. But it is also worth looking at what went right. The sequence of safety enhancements that enabled everyone on AF358 to escape with their lives can be traced back 20 years this month: the last fatal accident involving a British Airways plane.

On 22 August 1985, a Boeing 737 was accelerating along the runway at Manchester airport. Flight KT328 to Corfu was in the colours of British Airtours, as BA's charter subsidiary was known. The port engine suffered an explosion and part of the debris punctured the wing and a fuel tank. The explosion occurred at a speed of 120 knots, at a point when Captain Peter Terrington and Senior First Officer Brian Love could abort the take-off. They turned the aircraft off the runway on to a taxiway, taking it close to the airport fire station. But the direction of the wind meant that flames quickly spread to the rear of the aircraft. At the time there was no emergency power for the public address system, adding to the understandable chaos. Nor was there floor lighting directing passengers to the nearest escape route. The arrangement of seats around the emergency exits impeded the evacuation, and when toxic fumes from burning seats were spreading, every second counted.

What should have been a survivable accident claimed the lives of 53 passengers and two stewardesses. It also made flying for the rest of us much safer, as the lessons learned in Manchester were quickly introduced and the Air France passengers this week show the effects.

The accident also draws attention to the extraordinary level of safety that aviation has achieved. For confirmation, log on to the excellent AirSafe.com website. The last serious event involving a large jet belonging to a Western airline was in November 2001, involving an American Airlines Airbus A300 that had just taken off from New York JFK. The website recites a litany of "recent fatal events", but on aircraft and airlines that you or I are extremely unlikely to find ourselves on. Ageing aircraft on small airlines in the developing world tragically comprise the main source of fatalities.

One in three passengers still boards an aircraft laden with anxiety about flying - perhaps understandable given the prospect of spending the next eight hours six miles above the earth and separated from it by very thin air, but misplaced.

The best technique for ensuring your survival in a survivable accident, though, is to watch the cabin crew's safety drill. Ignore the pointless bit about "... and here's a whistle to attract attention", and concentrate on how to get out of the plane in a hurry. Then sit back, relax and enjoy the safest form of transport in the world. Whether or not you are aboard a "charmed" A340 or a plane belonging to British Airways as it marks 20 years without a fatal accident, this is the best of times to be an airline passenger. And it beats staring at traffic cameras.

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