Runaway competition

Published: Saturday 15 October 2005

Runaway competition

-- (Credit: Debojyoti kundu / CSE)It all started bizarrely but innocuously enough on August 2, 2005 -- the day Air France flight 358 crash-landed amidst severe weather in Toronto, Canada, trundled off the end of a runway and burst into flames. All 309 people aboard the plane were saved in what media accounts of the accident called a "miracle".

Then it looked as if luck ran out for the airline industry: over the following six weeks at least 470 people were killed in five worldwide plane crashes, and August 2005 became the deadliest month in the history of commercial aviation. The incidents have re-ignited a worldwide debate over commonalities between crashes and what, if anything, should be done about them.

The August 2 Air France "miracle" was followed by an August 6 crash of a Tunisian charter plane into the sea near Sicily, killing at least 13. On August 9, a West Caribbean Airways flight from Panama to Martinique went down in remote Venezuela, killing all 152 aboard. On August 14, a Cypriot plane operated by Helios Airways plummeted near Athens, killing all 121 passengers. On August 23, a tans jet crashed into the Peruvian mountains during a heavy storm, killing 43. Finally, on September 5 a Mandala Airlines flight plunged immediately after takeoff into a heavily populated area of Medan, Indonesia's third-largest city, killing 103 of 117 passengers and 47 more on the ground.

2004: safest year What lends a touch of irony to these horrific accidents is that the head of the un's International Civil Aviation Organisation (icao) has noted recently that 2004 "was the safest in terms of fatalities since the creation of icao in 1944 and the second lowest in terms of the number of accidents". Indeed, worldwide trends show air travel has been getting consistently safer year after year -- statistically, air travel safety is six times better today than it was a quarter century ago, and with vastly increased daily flights.

Worldwide safety records are not monolithic, however, and regions like Europe, the us, and Australia are far better than Africa, Asia, and some former Soviet countries. Further, while the ratio of fatalities to flights has continued to fall, the raw numbers of both have increased.

'Budget' flying The increase in flight numbers has been particularly due to the worldwide explosion of small, 'budget' airlines -- an upsurge that has fuelled much debate, post-August 2005. After the Mandala tragedy, a Jakarta Post editorial pointed out that "since 2004, there have been over two dozen air accidents here. Though not necessarily the cause of the crash, one does wonder whether sometimes airlines do 'cut corners' in the world of fierce competition among budget airlines". This spectre of corner-cutting budget airlines -- they skimp on maintenance, quality employees, even water-down the fuel -- now echoes worldwide, for of the six crashes, only Air France was a well-known name.

Important questions Fuel prices are at record highs and climbing. Insurance premiums have skyrocketed since September 11, 2001. With the unprecedented increase in airlines -- particularly budget or Low Cost Carriers (lcc) -- competition has become significantly fiercer; in India alone, seven new lcc s have started plying the skies over the past two years. Industry profit margins, already thin, are stretched. Adding credence to worries, a group of Belgian pilots recently responded to the string of disasters by conceding that pressure on pilots to take off, despite minor technical problems, has risen dramatically.

While such a situation is clearly unacceptable, the recent tragedies -- shocking as they may be -- don't back contentions of systemic failure. A detailed report of the International Aviation Safety Association (iasa), an international watchdog, concluded that "there is no underlying seasonal factor nor identifiable trend. Indeed the recent spate of accidents appears to run almost the entire gamut of known pitfalls." Although the report took the opportunity to urge that international safety audits be standardised, the only commonality iasa found in all the accidents was a range of human error -- mistakes committed by experienced veterans.

Other studies by icao, the bbc and others have all come to the same conclusion: according to what's currently known, 2005's air tragedies will be little more than a statistical "blip" on the air travel safety screen.

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