What you should – and shouldn't – take from the Southwest Airlines accident

Until today Southwest was the safest airline in the world – now Ryanair has taken that spot. And it’s worth considering why

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Thursday 19 April 2018 14:46
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'I'm sorry, there's a hole and someone went out?': Audio released from Southwest Airlines emergency landing after explosion

On Monday, sadly, more than 100 people died on the roads of the US. It’s carnage out there: on average last year, one American was killed in a traffic accident every 13 minutes.

But the fatality that has been making headlines around the world is a once in 47 years tragedy. At the point when flight 1380 departed from New York La Guardia for its home base at Dallas Love Field, Southwest Airlines had flown 1.8 billion passengers safely.

But after part of the port engine on the Boeing 737 disintegrated in mid-air, puncturing the skin of the aircraft, the passenger sitting in seat 14A was partially sucked out of a window.

Even as news networks converged on Philadelphia airport, where the plane made an emergency landing, the harrowing exchange between pilots and air traffic control was made available on social media.

No reader, listener or viewer could fail to be horrified by the thought that a mother-of-two, Jennifer Riordan, lost her life in such awful circumstances. And surely anyone who has ever flown empathises with the surviving passengers who imagined they were doomed.

But unless we work on our perceptions, the first passenger death aboard Southwest Airlines could grow into a much bigger tragedy. It’s only human to envisage a nervous flyer concluding from the shocking images of a shredded jet engine that an uncontained failure may happen on their next flight. They vow to drive next time, whether from New York to Dallas or London to Barcelona.

They may perceive that by eliminating the chance of being expelled from a plane six miles above the Midwest or the Mediterranean, they are acting in a rational, risk-averse way. Yet even the most competent and defensive motorists will be exposed to a spectrum of dangers, from mechanical failure to drunk drivers.

The aviation industry, and the safety regulators who govern it, are obsessive about every detail of a flight: engineering out danger and looking deep into the soul to reduce the risk created by human factors. That is why the two biggest budget airlines in Europe, Ryanair and easyJet, have never suffered a fatal accident. If you measure safety by the number of passengers flown without a fatality, they are now globally in first and second place respectively.

At ground level, society tolerates far lower standards. Anyone switching from air to road is increasing their personal risk by many orders of magnitude.

A converse argument says that our perceptions of risk are just fine: the reason the Southwest tragedy is so compelling is because it is, thankfully, such a rare event.

I would love to think that we could calibrate danger roughly in line with actual risks. But I worry when travellers reveal their anxieties to me: not so much about flying, but terrorism.

In 2015, 30 British holidaymakers were among the 38 victims of a gunman on the beach at Sousse. The devastation of this appalling massacre will haunt the families affected for generations. Tunisia’s tourist industry is only slowly recovering, and the ripples of fear spread across north Africa and the Middle East.

After the airstrikes on Syria last weekend, concerns this week have switched to Cyprus. A reader I shall identify only as DS has booked a holiday there on 25 April. “What would your advice be due to the conflict with Syria?” she wrote. I reassured her that flights are operating normally, that neither the UK nor any other Western government has issued a warning of possible reprisals.

What I didn’t add was: “Cyprus is 60 miles from Syria, where an awful war has been raging for years – exactly the situation that prevailed when you booked your holiday.”

While terrible events play out around the globe, the reality for British holidaymakers is that the world has never been safer.

The same applies for airline passengers anywhere on the planet. I am making the most of those benign probabilities, and I urge you to do the same.

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