The massive coverage given to the Malaysian air disaster highlights, paradoxically, the fact that air safety has improved remarkably in the past couple of decades. Certainly, the mystery of its disappearance has heightened the drama, but when I was transport correspondent of the Independent 20 years ago, air disasters outside Europe generated little media interest because they were relatively frequent and generally thought to be inevitable; a price that had to be paid for our mobility.
At the time safety analysts for the industry were warning that if the number of flights continued to grow and safety did not improve, by 2010 a plane would be going down every week, putting at risk the survival of the industry. People would simply not want to fly if the risks were perceived to be too great. In fact, safety has improved to such a degree that crashes of jets run by established European, American and Asian operators are relatively rare, and attract the kind of blanket coverage accorded to the demise of flight MH370. Flying in Africa and in some former Communist countries remains far less safe than in the west, but even there the record has improved recently.
The massive improvement in aviation’s safety record is the result of a series of factors: safety in transport industries has traditionally improved through trial and error; accidents highlight weaknesses in safety systems; and lessons are learned. Spurred on by public concern, airlines have been forced to accept ever tighter regulations on every aspect of their operations.
New planes are significantly safer than their predecessors in every respect. Crashes in the past were caused by a range of faults, from engine failure and metal fatigue to parts falling off and planes simply crashing into the ground through a navigation error (known in the business as CFIT, Controlled Flight Into Terrain). While extremes of weather and bird strikes continue to pose a risk, modern planes are far more resilient than in the past. Hijacking, a cause of several accidents in the 1970s and 1980s – and of course 9/11 – has been made very difficult thanks to the security passengers have to go through to get on a plane.
Far greater automatic control of flying has also greatly reduced the scope for pilot error, a frequent source of accidents in the past. That said, better training has meant that pilots have managed to avert major disasters, such as in the case of the US Airways Airbus that was safely crash-landed in the Hudson river in New York in 2009. In the UK, the last fatal accident involving a commercial flight was the Kegworth disaster in 1989, caused by a combination of mechanical failure and pilot error which killed 47 people.
The railways, too, have seen a similar improvement in their safety record. There has been only one fatality in a rail crash since 2002, a record unprecedented in the history of the industry. In the 1980s, for instance, there were 17 fatal train crashes with a death total of 88.
Thanks to improved technology, intense media scrutiny of disasters and the realisation by transport operators that disasters are bad for business, stepping into a plane or a train is a far safer experience than it was in the past. That said, travelling will never be 100% safe.