Armchair World Home Page Armchair World's Company Store Articles on science, history and health Articles on food preparation, wine, ingredients and recipes Travel information, articles, travel insurances, hotels, airlines, railpasses Armchair World
Armchair World Travel - Menu Info--Escapes-- Air-- Hotels-- Cruises--Vacations--Cars-- Railpasses--Specials--Insurance  


Air Safety


Jack Keady, MBA

About The Author

Jack Keady is a transportation and marketing consultant for the airline and airport industries. His extensive experience includes long term resource planning and analysis for McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company, manager of marketing development for American Airlines, and proposal writing for Lockheed Martin Corporation. His company, John J. Keady Transportation Consulting provides travel, airline and airport consulting together with logistics management and proposal writing services. He holds a B.S. from Northeastern University and an MBA from the Harvard School of Business Management. He is a member of the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE), the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) , the Airports Council International (ACI) and the Wings Club.

The odds against dying in a commercial airliner are low and get lower every year. Depending on the carrier and continent, a US flyer has somewhere between a one-in-one-million and one-in-four-million chance of not surviving his flight. In every year more people are killed on the highways. In some years more people are killed by snakebites, lightning strikes or bee stings than by airliner. In some years no one dies in an airline crash.

Then why all the headlines, why all the television exposure, why all the publicity, angst, and even panic over air safety?

One reason is that the public loves a conspiracy. Currently two or three conspiracy theories remain rippling through the aviation world; the first is that some mysterious negative force exists over Long Island east of JFK. If not, how and why else would three aircraft crash within several years? An associated, and equally disproved conspiracy theory is that TWA flight 800 (one of the three crashes) was brought down by a missile. The third conspiracy is that Korean Airlines is a dangerous airline that should be avoided at all cost.

Rather than a conspiracy, a statistician might tell you that these are all just examples of “bunching theory”. Events are not evenly distributed over the universe. They cluster or “bunch”. A good example would be the famous “Bermuda triangle”. There was a bunch of accidents there in years past, but as time goes on, randomness sets in, and the phenomenon abates.

This is not to debunk truly connected events. The British Comet, early delivery 727’s, the Lockheed Electra all had either design flaws or new flight characteristics that did cause a related series of accidents. But what we are talking about now is trying to push a series of random, totally unconnected events into a circle or “bunch” based on scant evidence.

Another human behavioral characteristic is that mankind refuses to accept as explanation that an accident was a random event never to be repeated again. Lightning strikes in a random fashion; we accept that. People sometimes contact bizarre diseases such as flesh eating bacteria; we accept that. Earthquakes open up huge holes in the ground; we accept that. A murderer stalks an office building; we accept that. But let an isolated fault, a one-in-a-billion occurrence take down an aircraft and we don't accept that. The center fuel tank explosion of a TWA 747 appears inexplicable and not capable of being ever again duplicated and yet we refuse to accept that. In another sense, of course, perhaps there was a reason that can be discovered and fixed. We must not stop investigating and trying for a fix. And, we must learn from the past. The issue is how long and how deeply do we want to research past improbabilities while neglecting future possibilities. Where, in the grand scheme of things should we simply say, as the Arabs do, that “it is written” and that our money and efforts are better spent on other areas, such as air traffic control.

This randomness of air disasters can be illustrated in looking at past history. Not too many years ago, Delta Airlines, a carrier as safe as any, was suddenly being avoided and investigated due to a series of accidents and incidents that ultimately proved unrelated. Currently it is American Airlines' turn in the barrel as an equally unconnected series of accidents leads regulators to suggest that something is endemically wrong with AA’s flight operations practices. And of course since added scrutiny of anything in life will bring about revelation of some imperfection, “improvements” will be suggested which will always serve as adequate justification to regulators.

This leads to the debate about whether the media inflames the public or the public inflames the media. Considering the vast publicity gained by alarmists such as John Nance and Mary Shivao it leaves little doubt that the public is uniquely fascinated by aircraft accidents. But that does not exonerate the media. As this is being written, the Los Angeles Times has run a series of articles trying to connect an Alaska MD-80 crash to poor manufacturing practices at the McDonnell Douglas factory 10 years ago. There is no connection. Few, if any crashes have ever been attributed to sloppy assembly line procedures but this does not stop the flow of ink.

The Alaska crash just mentioned illustrates somewhat what has been written here and highlights another peculiarity of the airline safety industry. This is the rush to generalize. The Alaska crash appears to have been perhaps a unique situation yet to listen to the media one would believe that every stabilizer on every one of this aircraft type was about to bust loose. Not true. In the continuum of randomness to epidemic causality, stabilizer problems would appear to be rather low on the series-of-related-problems list. Think for a minute. Are we to believe that the same part in every MD-80 manufactured over a span of more than 10 years suddenly became failure prone and dangerous in exactly the same month? Now, not a day goes but that some pilot somewhere makes an emergency landing due to stabilizer problems.

If there is one good thing that arises from all this, it is that, even though many of these are random events, it does lead to increased air safety. We now have ground proximity warning devices to tell a pilot when he is dangerously close to the earth, we have terminal collision avoidance systems which warn of two aircraft flying close together, and as a result of the TWA fuel tank explosion we have improved the margin of safety with respect to fuel and vapors.

What we don't have is an improved program for the single largest cause of accidents. This is the pilot’s brain. Human judgment. Time and again pilots get disoriented, ignore safety warnings, mis-hear controller instructions or react too slowly. We have poorly trained pilots. We have medicated pilots. We have angry pilots. We have marginal pilots. And yet the percentage of pilots found unsafe and released from duty is (a) a statistic that has never been revealed and (b) if revealed would be surprisingly low. Note that this is not an indictment of this skilled and courageous group. But, the fact remains that in at least 40% or more of occurrences of aircraft accidents, no mechanical failure was found at fault. And in some cases, sadly, even when mechanical failure was the primary culprit, slow reactions or poor judgment of the aircraft commander compounded the situation.

In short, air safety will always be on the front pages. While the percentage of accident continues to decline, the sheer addition of airliners in the skies will increase faster than the accident rate declines. This will inevitably lead to more crashes while we are simultaneously getting safer. And so the headlines will continue.

There is an old adage in the public relations sector of the industry that a single crash remains on people’s minds until the next crash, after which it is old news. Just this year has been a good example. The EgyptAir crash was pushed off page one by the American Airlines Little Rock crash. This in turn was rendered history by the Alaska crash.

In similar fashion, a series of disasters lasts in the spotlight only until a new series pushes it off-stage. First it was the 737 rudder problems. These were rendered less important by the 747 fuel tank panic. And then the Swissair MD-11 insulation problem made the last problem unworthy of discussion. And now we have jackscrews in MD-80 tails that are the air safety problem of the week and will be until “some greater disaster” comes along.

In summary, accidents will always happen. The only objective is to successively, year after year reduce their incidence. The media will always follow the motto “if it bleeds, it leads”. Regretfully, the headline “nothing bad happened today” does not capture viewers or sell magazines. If only the headlines were as big in those years with no accidents as they in years with when a significant airline accident occurs".

But we must never forget the old but proven adage so faithfully uttered by flight attendants as the plane pulls into the gate “the safest part of your journey has just ended….”

© 2000 Jack Keady

Jack Keady can be reached by filling out our feedback form and referencing this article. His website, has a detailed description of the services of his firm, John J. Keady, Transportation Consulting, together with resume and prior experience.

Homepage | Armchair World Travel | Armchair World Directory

© 2000-2004 Armchair World