Russia's air safety record is far worse than the rest of Europe's

The airlines serving the UK are obsessive about minimising risk

Simon Calder
Tuesday 03 November 2015 15:37
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There are transport risks worth worrying about, and then there’s flying.

Cycling, driving and (especially) motorcycling put you in harm’s way. But travelling aboard a passenger jet to or from the UK is probably the least hazardous activity that you and I are likely to engage in.

After Saturday’s tragedy, when a Russian passenger jet crashed in Egypt’s Sinai desert en route from Sharm el Sheikh, your perception of risk may not be so optimistic. After all, whatever the cause of the crash, these seem to be troubled times in the aviation industry.

Last year more than 500 passengers perished aboard the planes of a single carrier, Malaysia Airlines. We still don’t know where the first, MH370, disappeared to after veering from its flight path between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing; the search for the Boeing 777 continues in the Indian Ocean. We are all too aware of the fate of MH17, shot down over eastern Ukraine by an anti-aircraft missile while flying from Amsterdam to the Malaysian capital. And just before the end of 2014, an AirAsia Airbus A320 took 162 people to their deaths in the Java Sea while on a routine flight from Surabaya to Singapore.

The nightmare continued this year. In March, a Germanwings A320 crashed in the French Alps en route from Barcelona to Dusseldorf with 150 people on board. Forty-eight hours later, their relatives learnt that the best engineering and the most sophisticated technology count for nothing if one of those people is a suicidal first officer intent on mass murder.

Now Russia’s worst-ever aviation disaster has claimed 224 more victims, shattering the hopes, dreams and lives of their grieving relatives.

In the light of such heartbreak, to claim that airline travellers are living in the best of times may seem far-fetched. But let me try.

Today, fog permitting, more than a quarter-million people will step aboard planes at Britain’s airports. Most will be travelling on British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair. Whatever your opinion about the standards of customer service on these airlines, for the most important element of service - arriving alive and well - they are all outstanding, as are Virgin Atlantic, Monarch, Flybe and Jet2.

A corporate obsession with safety has kept BA free of fatal accidents for three decades. Meanwhile its no-frills rivals refute the notion that budget airlines cut corners on safety in the best possible way: by flying hundreds of millions of passengers accident-free.

Next Tuesday, easyJet marks 20 years since its first flight from Luton to Glasgow. In those two decades, Russia has seen 20 fatal incidents - of which Saturday’s crash is the latest and deadliest.

Without diminishing any of those tragedies, the fact remains that you and I are most unlikely to be on the sort of flight that, all too often, figures in the accident statistics: belonging to a small airline flying domestically within Russia, often when landing in bad weather.

One characteristic shared by the high-profile losses in the past two years is that they are outside the norm: when tragedy struck, they were all at cruising altitude. That is nothing more than a grisly coincidence. And taking a long view, crashes are not happening any more frequently. Indeed, given the rapid expansion of aviation worldwide, the risks are shrinking year-on-year. Flying has never been safer.

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