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Airline Travel Is Really Safe. Let’s Keep It That Way. - http://travelporn.info | luxury travel sites

April 19, 2018 4:41 pm
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You can learn a surprising amount about airline safety by listening to this 8-minute YouTube audio:

The voices are those of an air traffic controller in Philadelphia and Tammi Jo Shults, the pilot of Southwest Airlines flight 1380, who made an emergency landing there on Tuesday after one of the plane’s engine’s failed catastrophically. 

“Could you have medical personnel on the runway?” she says at the 2:50 mark. “We have injured passengers.”

“Is your airplane physically on fire?” asks the controller.

“No,” she replies. “It’s not on fire but part of it is missing.”

When Shults is cleared to land, she says, in that laconic pilot voice Tom Wolfe immortalized in “The Right Stuff,” “Thanks guys for the help.” Then she expertly guides the plane onto the runway, using the one remaining engine. There is no moment when Shults sounds panicked, or even mildly nervous. She is in complete control.

It is tragic that one of the passengers — now identified as Jennifer Riordan, a Wells Fargo executive and mother of two from Albuquerque, New Mexico — died on that flight.

Yet here’s an astonishing statistic: Before Riordan, the last time someone died as a result of an accident on a U.S. carrier was nine years ago, when a commuter plane, Colgan Air flight 3407, crashed into a house while trying to land in Buffalo, New York, killing 50 people.

The previous crash of a U.S. carrier had taken place three years earlier, in 2006, killing 49 people during the takeoff of a Comair plane. That’s just two crashes in 12 years, reinforcing a point airline safety experts like to make: Flying is extraordinarily safe.

Airline travel kills fewer people than swing sets (20 deaths a year), or bathtubs (300 deaths a year) or staircases (1,600 deaths a year). Flying on a U.S. carrier especially may be the safest thing a human can do aside from sleeping. (Actually, sleeping is pretty dangerous: 450 people die each year from falling out of bed.)

But why? Part of the reason is that modern airplanes have equipment that guards against problems that once led to crashes. Remember wind shear? Catastrophes resulting from a sudden “downburst” used to be relatively common. But the last one took place over 20 years ago. Since then, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration put out a wind-shear avoidance course that all pilots take, while aircraft manufacturers have installed wind-shear detection systems.

Or how about “controlled flight in terrain,” as the act of slamming into the side of a mountain or building is called in the airline business? Crashes of this sort, which used to take place from time to time when pilots became confused or disoriented, are now vanishingly rare. Planes are now equipped with systems that set off alarms if a pilot is in danger of hitting something, including another plane in the sky.

Aircraft now come equipped with automated “fly-by-wire” systems, which can intervene to prevent pilots from making a mistake. As the writer William Langewiesche has noted in several articles and books, pilots resent the degree to which automation has taken over so much decision-making in the cockpit. But it has saved lives.

The second reason is that for all their corner-cutting and nickel-and-diming of customers, U.S. airlines generally do not scrimp on safety. Plane crashes generate huge lawsuits and cause people to avoid the airline whose plane has crashed, at least temporarily. Conversely, as the writer and airline expert R.D. Sussmann-Deberry puts it, “A well-maintained aircraft is an on-time aircraft.”

Finally, there are the pilots themselves. “I would argue that the most improved ‘equipment’ has been pilots,” said Joe Brancatelli, who writes the “Joe Sent Me” newsletter for frequent travelers. “They are more mature and better trained.”

In the vast majority of plane crashes, pilot error is usually found to have played a big role. In the 2006 Comair crash, the pilot mistakenly tried to take off using a runway that was too short for the aircraft. And in the 2009 Colgan Air crash, both the pilot and co-pilot made a series of inexplicable errors that caused them to lose control of the plane as it prepared to land.