Despite plane crashes, it’s safe to fly

It’s been pretty gruesome for the airline industry in recent days.

First, a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was shot over eastern Ukraine last week, killing all 298 people on board. Then, a TransAsia ATR-72 crashed near the small Taiwanese island of Penghu in heavy rains, claiming more than 40 lives. And on Thursday, an Air Algerie MD-83 with 116 on board crashed in Mali.

At tough times like this, it’s worth reminding people that flying remains one of the safest modes of transportation on Earth, especially since airline accidents tend to become spectacular media events.

In the United States, there hasn’t been a commercial airline fatality since the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in early 2009. That alone is an enviable record. The credit for such a stellar record sits squarely on the shoulders of many dedicated safety professionals, like the commercial aviation safety team, which set a goal in 1998 to reduce fatalities on U.S. commercial airline flights by 80%. By 2008, fatalities had dropped 83%.

Despite impressive improvements, the job of keeping the aviation industry safe hasn’t stopped. Even though new technologies are designed to make flying safer, there always seems to be some new danger hiding behind a cloud posed to wreak havoc that no one had previously considered.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is one of those cases. Its tragedy should remind everyone that the efforts to ensure the safety of passengers, crew and aircraft must never end.

Certainly, a contributing factor in the downing of MH17 was the route chosen for the flight: right over the territory in Ukraine where fighting was known to be intense. It was thought that ground weapons like a rogue missile could not reach an airplane at 33,000 feet and so the international community posted no restrictions to flight. Obviously, everyone called that one wrong.

The European Cockpit Association said, “This event places the ability of the industry to adequately assess risks and the principles of flying over conflict zones under intense scrutiny. As pilots and safety professionals we cannot disregard one fundamental question, ‘What could have been done and can be done in the future to prevent this sort of tragedy?'” Indeed, air travelers are wondering the same thing.

The fact that MH17 followed the same route used by previous airlines — KLM and Singapore Airlines to name a few — only makes the situation reminiscent of something a mom might have warned her kids about. “If all the other kids dived off a 50-foot diving board because one of the older ones told them it was safe, does that mean you should?” This kind of maternal logic applied to flying is pretty difficult to refute.

The captain of each flight has the authority to ask for a reroute around hostile territory just as if confronted with bad weather. But the airlines are always in search of the fastest and least expensive route to anywhere, so changing anything in a flight plan can be problematic for an employee.

In hindsight, the choice of this route over Ukraine appears to have been a foolish risk, one that cost nearly 300 lives and the loss of an aircraft, not to mention the damage done to Malaysia Airline’s reputation and potentially the industry as a whole.

While the lunacy of the flight tracks over Ukraine is still fresh in everyone’s mind, it comes as no surprise that the FAA prohibited flights on Tuesday to Tel Aviv, a city and region embroiled in intense military conflict.

But on Thursday, the FAA rescinded the ban. From my perspective as a pilot, I think the ban was a smart idea. But from the shareholders’ point of view, a company with expensive assets sitting unused on the ground would probably seem wasteful.

In a TV discussion with Rafi Ron, former director of security at Ben Gurion International Airport, I asked how Israel could guarantee the safety from random rockets of an airplane full of people arriving or departing Tel Aviv. He responded that Israel’s current conflict was designed precisely to eliminate those Hamas launchers.

While I support Israel’s right to defend itself during the conflict with Hamas, I wouldn’t risk the lives of an airplane full of people just to learn for certain if the Israelis are right in their assessment of the potential risk. I have quite a bit to lose and it’s not a risk I’d be willing to take, as a pilot or a passenger.

The risk is very real and present when anyone is flying over a hostile territory. The spate of tragedies in the sky should prompt passengers to ask more questions about how and where their airlines operate before they hand over their credit cards for a ticket.

Robert P. Mark is a Chicago-based commercial pilot and publisher of the award-winning aviation industry blog, Jetwhine.com. He is author of the upcoming book, “Loss of Control” (Post-Hill Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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