Flying is Beyond Safe...BUT...Know what you Fly

2009 has been troubling in global aviation safety. Three plane crashes share the highlight reel with my emotions ranging from optimism to grave concern to bewilderment.

First, I was enjoying a company dinner in Lisbon, Portugal when I received a message on my phone about a US Air plane that was on the Hudson River in New York City (NYC). Major disaster was my first thought; miraculously, everyone survived. This January accident gave me further optimism about plane safety, particularly in the way the “spur of the moment” landing was expertly executed by the pilot. Although 99 times out of 100, flight 1549 would have been a horrific tragedy, it's important to know even when a plane has an accident there is a good chance for survival. Continental had an accident in December of 2008 where the plane crashed on take off yet all 115 passengers escaped. The paragraph and link below from the Huffington Post lays out the facts:

Despite these disasters, the truth about most airplane accidents is that people do survive. In fact, according to the US government, 95.7 percent of the passengers involved in aviation accidents make it out alive. That's right. When the National Transportation Safety Board studied accidents between 1983 and 2000 involving 53,487 passengers, they found that 51,207 survived. That's 95.7 percent. When you exclude crashes in which no one had a chance of surviving - like Pan Am 103 - the NTSB says the survival rate in the most serious crashes is 76.6 percent. In other words, if your plane crashes, you aren't necessarily doomed, just like the passengers on US Air 1549 in the Hudson.


Second, and only weeks after NYC was the Continental commuter plane crash in Buffalo, NY where 50 people died including a man in his house. This February accident baffled me as the plane seemed to just fall from the sky on its approach. It now appears that pilot fatigue and/or lack of sufficient training may have caused an error in judgement. The apparent way in which pilots are trained and/or encouraged to work long hours with regional airlines should be a serious concern to everyone. This crash brought back memories of the Lexington, KY crash in 2006 where a Comair jetliner crashed on takeoff killing 49. The runway was too short for that type of plane. Personally, I rarely fly commuter planes.

Here is something you probably don’t know - there was not A SINGLE COMMERCIAL AIRLINE PASSENGER DEATH IN THE USA DURING 2007 AND 2008. During that time, 1.5 billion passengers flew the friendly skies. Remarkable! Sadly, 2009 has made that success an afterthought.

Third and most disturbing was the Air France Disaster on June 1. Unlike previous crashes, this one should have the attention of those who take to the skies. As many are probably a bit unsettled (I am) from this tragedy, I want you to read this well written and informative article by Tyler Brule published last Sunday in the Financial Times. Tyler knows the airline industry well as he travels frequently and reports from time to time on his aviation experiences. A paragraph is below and the full story can be found at the link next to it. Whether you fly rarely or frequently, it's good to be as informed as possible.

By Tyler Brûlé - Published: June 6 2009
I’ve never paid much attention to the news channel France24, but from Monday morning until the moment I reluctantly had to board a flight for Singapore on Tuesday, it was on non-stop at home and in the office as I followed the story of Air France flight 447. I’m not sure if 2009 is shaping up to be a good or bad year for the aviation sector, but the crash in Buffalo of a Q400 (an aircraft I fly frequently) in February, followed by the cartwheeling of a FedEx freighter down the runway at Tokyo’s Narita (an airport I use frequently), already had me on edge long before the events of early Monday morning over the Atlantic.
This article can be found at:

Planes and why they crash has been an interest of mine for years. I'll admit that my grasp of thunderstorms and tricky weather patterns wasn't up to par for someone who reads tirelessly about crashes although it's vastly improved now. The Air France plane may have indeed hit a "perfect storm" of horrendous weather that shook it from the sky but my feeling is that the recent reports about the faulty airspeed sensors and/or pilot error in handling the storm seems more sensible. At this point we are only left to wonder as we may never know what happened if they don't find those black boxes. Whatever the reason, everyone should pay more attention to the weather reports.

Fortunately, I've only experienced bad turbulence on one flight. Ironically, it occurred on an Air France Transcontinental flight where we had fifteen minutes of severe turbulence (up and down not sideways) and more than half the plane was scared. In addition, the faces of the staff didn't inspire confidence. There was an infrequent flyer next to me who asked the flight attendant at least five times “are we going to crash". I was nervous yet stable as i knew that turbulence is usually not a big deal. In addition, this crash casts an uncertain shadow over Air France; a quality airline that will probably have to deal with a public leery of travelling with them unless it turns out that mother nature simply played a cruel trick on flight 447.

I implore those who fly to pay more attention to the safety record of your airline along with the weather conditions around your flight time. It puzzles me when I ask people (a few last week) what airline they are flying or the accident history and they have no idea. Wouldn't you want to know if the airline you just booked has had 3 crashes in the last 10 years? Or shown sloppy maintenance practices almost every year? Or had a near miss with another plane? Or had faulty landing gear accidents a few times in one year? It’s obvious some people don't care or would rather not know as they rely on the reassuring fact that you have about a 1 in 60 million chance of dying in a plane crash.

If you care about your safety and the well being of your loved ones when flying, I urge you to consider 4 simple things:

1) Read as much as you can on the accident rate, maintenance history and customer service of any airline that you fly with - I won't name any names but there are more than a few airlines in the USA, Europe and around the globe that I would NEVER fly. If you do a bit of research, those names should be obvious. The reputable airlines that I would and do fly with are even more obvious as they thrive in most aspects of safety. A little homework could safe your life.

2) Know the specific history of the plane model you will fly on – Along with the safety record of the airline you can also research the history of the plane model that you intend to take. Some plane types have accidents at a higher rate than others. Wouldn't you want to know if that is the plane you are about to board?

3) Weather - Check the weather yourself or the airline should be able to provide that information. Do not be afraid to ask the staff or captain about weather conditions. If you have a bad feeling about flying in ice, snow, high winds or expected storms, don’t fly that day. Our intuition is often our most valuable asset so it warrants our attention at all times.

4) Separate Flights - Whether you are a family, department or small company, you might want to consider NOT HAVING EVERYONE take the same flight – split up on two separate flights so if the plane does crash, an entire family, basketball team or marketing department will not be wiped out. A woman from Sweden and her family did just that as they were apparently afraid of flying together in the event that their plane crashed. Tragically, the woman and her son were on that Air France flight while her Brazilian husband and daughter took another airline. Their fear may have saved the whole family from dying.

While my words and advice may seem overly cautious in light of how safe flying is, I assure you it doesn’t take much work to become knowledgeable about who you fly with and what you fly on. One thing we must do less of is "driving because we are afraid of flying”. I have known quite a few people who put their life in more danger because they are fearful of planes. As you should know, driving is severely more dangerous than flying and should be limited for long trips unless you are taking to the highway for a specific purpose or need.

Finally, I can recommend an insightful book about “things to know in order to travel safer by air”. The author is Mary Schiavo who was the inspector general for the Transportation department. Some of the facts will alarm, surprise and frighten you. It was written in 1997 although I still refer to it often. You will gain immense knowledge from this book titled, “Flying Blind, Flying Safe”.

Below are a few lines from the introduction on the avoidable ValueJet crash in 1996:

ValueJet was a phenomenal success story. In just three years it had leapt from two planes on eight routes between Atlanta, Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa, to fifty-one planes with 320 itineraries.

ValueJet pilots made fifteen emergency landings in 1994, then were forced down fifty-seven times in 1995. (I didn’t know it yet, but that record would be surpassed within months with fifty-nine emergency landings. From February through May of 1996, ValueJet would have an unscheduled landing almost every other day.)

But the tragedy would expose what the FAA had long known – that ValueJet was primed for a major crash, that its maintenance was slipshod, that it had an accident rate fourteen times worse than its equals.

The piece warned that all airlines are not equally safe and passengers should know how to pick and choose the most secure. I had seen a Department of Transportation report condemning discounters, and I had ValueJet, Tower Air, commuter airlines (small operations that fly regional routes) and air taxis (planes for hire) in mind as I wrote, but I mentioned none by name.

……a DC-9 had just slammed into the Florida Everglades, Flight 592, headed for Atlanta, had smashed into the swamp, killing both pilots, three flight attendants, and all 105 passengers. Apparently, right before the crash, the crew reported to Air Traffic Control that there was smoke in the cabin and cockpit.

With the world economic crises and numerous airlines fighting to stay afloat, it would be naive to think that some of the practices of ValueJet and other negligent airlines are not occurring throughout the globe in 2009.

Chances are most of my readers will never experience a fatal crash yet it’s that one time when you are flying in the USA, Europe, Brazil, Asia or Africa with an airline you never heard of or are not familiar with that could cost you your life.

Flying is BEYOND Safe .......BUT......Know what you Fly.

Happy Gswede Sunday!

Which plane would you choose to take? Know what you Fly!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Seems like 'every time' I am going to fly, something happens with flights. I am not fond of flying, always get very nervous, but when the plane touches the ground and gets to the gate, I am feeling relaxed again....
And flying is still the safest way to travel they say.....