24 days ago


Air travel is the safest of all journeys but it can be catastrophic

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Many would have mistaken it as a nail-biting dramatic scene from one of the Hollywood movies but for the subsequent furore over the incident and court cases. This concerns the blowing a disused exit door off a brand new Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft shortly after take-off from Portland International Airport in the USA in January last. The skill and experience of the pilot helped its landing back safely to Portland with minor injuries to three passengers.

During a Singapore Airlines flight also involving a Boeing aircraft, Boeing 777-300ER, from London's Heathrow to Singapore, carrying 229 passengers and crew on board suffered severe air turbulence occurred. A passenger died and 30 others sustained injuries of different degrees. The plane had to make an emergency landing at Bangkok airport in Thailand.

In the latest such incident, the air-condition system of an Air India flight, AI 183, also a 15-year old Boeing 777 aircraft, bound for San Francisco from New Delhi malfunctioned when the passengers were on board it, resulting in fainting of several passengers. Mercifully it happened before the plane taking off. Reportedly, its air conditioning is a recurrent issue.

All such incidents are not categorised as aviation catastrophes. Plane crashes, like other transport accidents, cannot be completely ruled out. The three incidents involving three Boeing aircraft raise the question of safe air travel. Yet most people will be surprised to know that compared to road and train journeys, travel by air is the safest.

In 2023, the aviation industry suffered a total of 30 accidents worldwide compared with 42 in 2022. The accident rate decreased from 1.30 per million in 2022 to 0.80 in 2023. An average of one accident for every 880,293 flights was recorded. In terms of casualty, with 0.01 deaths per million miles travelled, air travel is far safer compared to train journeys in which 0.04 deaths per million miles are reported.

Clearly, advanced technology and more attention to safety issues of aircraft have improved the records of aviation industry over the past decades. But not all aircraft makers are following suit. Accusing fingers are naturally pointed at those aircraft manufacturers which have been churning out commercial aircraft in order to beat their competitors. The US envoy in Bangladesh and a visiting assistant secretary of the US who visited Bangladesh in mid-May suddenly played the role of salesmen in favour of Boeing when Bangladesh decided to add Airbus aircraft to its fleet. This is at a time when the aircraft company's compliance with safety standard came under scrutiny in their own country. A Boeing whistleblower John Barnett was found dead inside his truck before his scheduled testification against Boeing in a legal case.

Barnett who worked 30 years for Boeing was concerned about rushing its production of 787 Dreamliner jets and risking its safety. There were other problems the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) detected. It warned that the 'improperly installed wiring bundles on 737 Max planes could become damaged, leading to controls on the wings deploying unexpectedly, and making the aircraft start to roll'.

Aviation safety, however, is most important because there are hardly minor accidents like the three mentioned at the outset. There is no such incident such as minor aircraft collision or crash landing. In almost all such accidents the results are catastrophic with no survivor left. Aircraft are made as safe as they could be but profit getting the better of safety concerns may at times make companies lax about the issue. That is criminal. So, any attempt to sell an aircraft with its records suspect smacks of similar mentality that guides the companies to compromise on safety issues. Five years ago two Boeing 737 Max aircraft were lost in identical accidents, killing 346 people on board. Human life is precious anywhere on this planet and there is no scope for making it a plaything.

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