Despite the Madrid crash, flying is still safer than ever

By Harvey Elliott, a former air correspondent for The Times and an aviation industry specialist (THE TIMES, 22/08/08):

Don’t worry. It won’t happen again. The Spanish air crash that killed 153 people of the 172 on board the Spanair MD82 at Barajas airport, Madrid, won’t be repeated.

Statistics suggest that anything like it simply won’t happen again in the near future.

Just to prove me and the statisticians wrong it probably will. I remember how we were just getting over Lockerbie in December 1988 when a British Midland 737-400 crashed near the M1 motorway at Kegworth just a few days later.

But realistically it won’t. Flying remains by far the safest form of transport. If you travel by air for a lifetime you have a 1 in 2.5 million chance of being killed. Use the train and that drops to 1 in a 50,000 chance. On the road that becomes a 1 in 200 chance.

Take a look at the person next to you as you fly back to Britain today from your holiday. I guarantee that they are just a little bit more fearful than they would have been yesterday. Maybe that newspaper they are reading has a report on the Spanair crash and – my goodness what was that noise?

But there really is no need for anxiety. Here are the facts.

In the past year there were no accidents involving large passenger-carrying aircraft that caused loss of life in Britain. None at all.

It is true that a microlight collided with a small aircraft as they both approached Coventry airport. But that involved two smaller aircraft.

Five people died in that crash. Too many, especially for the families of those involved. Yet last year 2,943 people died on the road. How did the families of each of those cope?

An air crash, by the nature of its size and rarity, always attracts more publicity – and far more fear – than road casualties. We hurtle towards each other at 60 miles an hour on small rural roads without knowing what the other driver might do. What happens if he swerves? Or his front tyre bursts? Or he is only 17 (or even younger) and travelling too fast? Nobody knows or really cares.

But we keep aircraft at least a mile apart. We train pilots and crew every six months in what to do in an emergency. We have highly qualified training pilots to put the flying crew through their paces. And every time we get on an aircraft we are told where the lifejacket is, what to do if we crash in water, where the exits are and a host of other pre-flight paraphernalia designed to make us all feel more uncomfortable and far more wary than if we were simply told to get on the aircraft and get on with it.

Between 1980 and 1996 there were only 0.52 accidents per million flights in Europe. We were told by the experts that air travel was growing so fast that by 2010 there would be a fatal crash almost once a week. It hasn’t happened. In 1996 94 million passengers boarded flights out of Britain. In 2007 the number had increased to 140 million.

Twenty years earlier, in 1976, there were three accidents per million flights worldwide. Today that is down to 0.65 per million flights. In other words flying is now more than five times safer than it was in 1976.

Between 1996 and 2006 there were 283 accidents around the world and 8,599 people were killed. That is 860 deaths each year all across the world, including Africa – which had 30 times more fatalities than the US.

Why is flying safer than it was? Largely it is because technology has advanced. The aircraft that flew you from Britain to your holiday destination was almost certainly built in the past five years.

Every part of it will have been tested repeatedly – even before it made its first flight. Gone are the days when the aircraft was the weakest link in the chain – when you did not know if a rudder would fall off, a tyre would burst on landing or the engine would explode in flight.

Today, the pilot is the weakest link. More than three quarters of the accidents that do happen occur because the pilot and crew are to blame – they became disorientated and flew into a hillside or mountain or made some kind of in-flight mix-up that resulted in a crash. Rarely is the aircraft itself to blame.

Almost always there is no single cause of a crash. Often it is an accumulation of factors.

Maybe the aircraft was simply too young – the accident investigators refer to it as “infant mortality” – and its “teething problems” have not been ironed out. Maybe the chief pilot had had a row just before he left home that morning and was grumpy and rude to his co-pilot who, in turn, did not want to upset the captain still more.

Perhaps two or three things went wrong with the aircraft at once – a rare but possible explanation for the Spanair MD82 crash.

Does that make you feel better?

Somehow I knew it wouldn’t.