Sunday, June 28, 2009

Jetset: "Safety First"

Another peak travel season, another airfare hike? Not this summer. Airlines are showering customers with sales and promotions during what is normally their most profitable time of the year. But for this high-profile industry, no discounts are deep enough to lure passengers to an airline perceived to have a spotty safety record. Case in point: Taipei-based China Airlines (CI), which had a spate of deadly crashes in the 1990s. Some Taiwan friends tell me that, even it means a pricier ticket, they still prefer EVA Air, CI’s smaller rival, which hasn’t had a single fatal accident since it began flying in 1991.

Air safety is in the spotlight again after Air France flight 447 – carrying 228 people en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris – plunged into the Atlantic on June 1. This tragedy was the latest in a string of recent accidents involving nations long considered among the safest for aviation. From the deadly crash of a Spanair jet upon takeoff from the Madrid airport last August to the miraculous water landing of a US Airways plane in the Hudson River near New York in January, such incidents have travelers asking: “How safe is flying?”

Remarkably safe, aviation experts say. “The probability of a passenger being involved in an accident is one in 2 million – and one has a 60 percent chance of surviving such an accident,” explains Bill Voss, president of the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation. Last year 876 people worldwide (none in China) were killed in air crashes while China alone reported 73,484 traffic deaths.

Experts say there’s no room for complacency, however, given that human error causes the majority of crashes – including China’s last fatal accident in November 2004, when a China Eastern commuter jet took off in frigid Inner Mongolia without de-icing and crashed shortly afterward into a nearby park, killing 55 people.

“Accidents usually don’t occur without hundreds of visible events beforehand,” Voss says. “It’s extremely important to identify and solve problems when they are small to reduce the chances of them becoming catastrophic.” And despite tough economic times, Voss says, well-established carriers will never compromise safety to save money because only safety can ensure their long-term viability.

As the AF 447 investigation continues, some fliers will question the reliability of the twin-engine jetliner involved, an Airbus A330, for transoceanic flights. Experts, however, say the A330, which is a workhorse for many of the world’s major carriers – including China’s top three airlines – is a state-of-the-art craft, noting this is the model’s first fatal crash in 15 years of passenger service. “You can’t focus on this flight and ignore hundreds of thousands of other safe flights this aircraft has made,” Voss says, emphasizing the complexity of the AF 447 investigation. “When we have all the facts, we can make this aircraft even safer.” Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 102 of the July 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.