Simon Calder: Air France tragedy calls for real risk assessment

Saturday 06 June 2009 00:00 BST

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.

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