Up in the Air
It is often said that travelling by plane is the safest means of transport. But how reassuring is that? Does the person in the street actually believe it? After all, we can all think of people who have died in plane crashes. One only has to think of people such as band leader Glenn Miller (whose plane went missing between England and France in December 1944), actress Elizabeth Taylor (who lost a husband – Mike Todd – in 1958 in a plane crash in New Mexico), talented singer-songwriter Buddy Holly (whose plane crashed in Iowa in 1959), Otis Redding – most famous for the popular song "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" – who died in a plane crash in 1967 just a year before Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space) was killed when his plane crashed near Moscow. The boxing champion Rocky Marciano, the rock group Lynard Skynard...the list goes on – actors, singers, sports stars... More recently, in 1999 John F. Kennedy Jr and his wife and sister-in-law died when their plane crashed near Martha’s Vineyard, adding one more tragedy to the list of plane crashes suffered by the family. John F. Kennedy Senior lost both his sister and his elder brother in separate plane crashes in the 1940s.
But a lot of these crashes happened a long time ago and it can be argued that flight safety has increased considerably since then. Companies such as McDonnell Douglas (maker of the DC-10) completely redesigned its cargo door closing mechanism after learning a hard lesson in March 1974 when one of its planes crashed outside Paris, killing all 346 passengers after the cargo door burst open during take-off and caused the plane to depressurize.
All its planes were grounded after a crash in 1979 at Chicago airport: an engine had come away and damaged a wing during take-off causing the plane to roll and catch fire, killing 273 passengers and crew.
In the 1985 Japan Air Lines crash near Mount Fuji, plane maintenance (or lack of it) was to blame. Badly carried-out repairs from a previous problem caused a bulkhead to rupture, depriving the pilot of control over the plane. The maintenance supervisor subsequently committed suicide.
It can be reassuring to think that lessons in plane design and airline maintenance are learned from disasters such as these, making air travel today safer than ever.
Often, however, it is not the design or maintenance of the aircraft which is at fault but simple human error, albeit often compounded by bad weather conditions and/or faulty technology.
March 1977 saw one of the biggest air disasters ever, in Tenerife. Fog, trouble with radio signals and confusion about the instructions were a recipe for disaster for the 583 people aboard the two Boeing 747s that consequently collided on the runway.
And in 1996 349 people were killed near New Delhi when a cargo plane did not follow air traffic controllers' instructions and, as a direct result, crashed into their 747.
Will we ever be able to completely erase the margin of human error which contributes to such disasters? It is hard to say, but it can be argued that had either of the planes in the New Delhi crash been fitted with the collision-avoidance technology available at the time, this disaster at least might have been avoided. The fact remains that with the advances made in technology and the lessons learned from past mistakes with regard to plane design and maintenance, air travel is safer today than ever before in the whole history of aviation. It might be wise to consider that approximately 30,000 passenger flights are completed successfully every day just in the USA, let alone the rest of the world!
Nowadays it seems that the fear of flying is not so much related to the safety of the plane itself as to the security of the flight in relation to possible terrorist attacks.
The events of 11th September 2001, when two hijacked planes ploughed into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, have changed the way airline companies operate and the way people feel about flying. Unlike the problems faced by the industry in the past, the current fashion for suicide bombers on planes seems insurmountable. This is not a question of redesigning the odd cargo door or two, or developing new pieces of technology to override incompetent flight manoeuvres. This is a question of screening the passengers to the extent that they may have to surrender their civil liberties in exchange for a boarding card.
Nevertheless, if the aviation industry and airline companies continue to learn as quickly as they have done in the past in the face of adversity, it could be argued that the current situation may not last long.
Quick Quiz: Read the clues below and write the solutions on a piece of paper. Then take the first letter of each answer and rearrange them to find the hidden word connected with this Talking Point.
1. __________ Gagarin (the first man in space) was killed when his plane crashed near Moscow.
2. All its planes were __________ after a crash in 1979 at Chicago airport: an engine had come
away and damaged a wing during take-off.
3. It can be reassuring to think that lessons in plane design and airline maintenance are __________ from disasters such as these, making air travel today safer than ever.
4. __________, trouble with radio signals and confusion about the instructions were a recipe for disaster for the 583 people aboard the two Boeing 747s that consequently collided on the runway.
5. And in 1996, 349 people were killed near New Delhi when a cargo plane did not follow air traffic controllers’ __________ and, as a direct result, crashed into their 747.
6. __________ it seems that the fear of flying is not so much related to the safety of the plane itself as the security of the flight in relation to possible terrorist attacks.