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Traveling by Air: How safe?

by Admin-Phmp
Published: Last Updated on

Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

It’s a story most people now know.

There was no word from the pilots, no sign that anything was wrong with Malaysian Airlines as it hovered over the waters of the South China Sea on its way to Beijing. And then it was gone.

Flight MH370 last had contact with air traffic controllers 120 nautical miles off the east coast of the Malaysian town of Kota Bharu after climbing to a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet (10,670 meters).

There were no reports of bad weather and no sign why the Boeing 777-200ER would have vanished from radar screens about an hour after it took off. The aircraft left Kuala Lumpur on March 8 at 12.21 a.m. and was due to land in the Chinese capital at 6.30 a.m. on the same day.

“We accept God’s will. Whether he is found alive or dead, we surrender to Allah,” Selamat Omar, a Malaysian whose 29-year-old son Mohamad Khairul Amri Selamat was heading to Beijing for a business trip, told Associated Press. He said his son would call him once he arrived at 6:30. He did receive a call, but it came from the airline telling him that the plane was missing.

Although air travel is statistically the safest way to go, fears and controversy remain. “There’s still this mystique about flying,” said Ron Nielsen, a retired US Airways pilot who’s found a second career counseling people who are afraid to fly, told The Seattle Times. “There’s a fear of being closed in, and there’s a fear of dying.”

The website of crashstuff.com shares these statistics: “Your chances of being involved in an aircraft accident are about 1 in 11 million. On the other hand, your chances of being killed in an automobile accident are 1 in 5000. Statistically, you are at far greater risk driving to the airport than getting on an airplane. However, the perception is that you have more control over your fate when you are in your car than as a passenger traveling on an airplane. Experience shows otherwise, considering that over 50,000 people are killed on the highways every year.”

The Convention on International Civil Aviation Annex 13 defines an aviation accident as “an occurrence associated with the operation of an aircraft, which takes place between the time any person boards the aircraft with the intention of flight until such time as all such persons have disembarked, where a person is fatally or seriously injured, the aircraft sustains damage or structural failure or the aircraft is missing or is completely inaccessible.”

According to Wikipedia, the first fatal aviation accident occurred in a Wright Model A aircraft at Fort Myer, Virginia, in the United States on September 17, 1908, resulting in injury to the pilot, Orville Wright, and the death of the passenger, Signal Corps Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge.

In over one hundred years of implementation, aviation safety has improved considerably. But despite this, there are airplane crashes that could not be forgotten. On March 27, 1977, 583 people died when a KLM Boeing 747 attempted to take-off without clearance and collided with a taxiing Pan Am 747 at Los Rodeos Airport on the island of Tenerife, Spain. Both aircrafts were completely destroyed.

On August 12, 1985, the single-aircraft disaster with the highest number of fatalities: 520 died on board a Boeing 747. The Japan Airlines Flight 123 suffered an explosive decompression from an incorrectly repaired aft pressure bulkhead, which failed in mid-flight, destroying most of its vertical stabilizer, severing all hydraulic lines, making the 747 virtually uncontrollable. Pilots were able to keep the plane flying for half an hour before crashing into a mountain.

Perhaps, the world’s deadliest mid-air collision happened on November 12, 1996, over Haryana, India, involving Saudia Flight 763 and Air Kazakhstan Flight 1907. The crash was mainly the result of the Kazakh pilot flying lower than the assigned clearance altitude. All 349 passengers and crew onboard the two aircraft died.

On May 25, 1979, American Airlines Flight 191, following improper maintenance and the loss of an engine, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10, lost control and crashed near O’Hare International Airport in Des Plaines, Illinois. The crash killed all 271 passengers and crew on board, as well as two people on the ground.

On November 12, 2001, American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus A300, crashed in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, New York, just after departing John F. Kennedy International Airport bound for Las Américas International Airport, Santo Domingo. The first officer’s overuse of the rudder in response to wake turbulence from a Japan Airlines 747 was cited as the cause. The crash killed all 260 people on board, as well as five people on the ground.

In April 2000, the worst air disaster in the Philippines happened. The Air Philippines Boeing 737-200 was preparing to land at Davao airport when it crashed and burst into flames on the Island Garden City of Samal, killing all 131 passengers and crew on board.

A year earlier, on February 2, 1998, Cebu Pacific Flight 387 from Manila crashed near the top of a fog-shrouded Mount Sumagaya in Claveria, Misamis Oriental, killing all 104 people on board.

However, not all those in plane crashes die. Between 1983 and 2000, over 95% of people in plane crashes reportedly survived in the United States.

It must be recalled that all passengers and crew survived after the Cebu Pacific plane Flight 5J971 plane overshot the runway of Davao International Airport after landing in 2013.

“We thought we were all going to die,” passenger Percival Jacones, a 33-year-old seafarer who was returning to Davao for a vacation, told Philippine Daily Inquirer. “Everyone panicked. Women and kids were screaming. We were terrified. We thought the plane would explode.”

According to FFA, only 6% of commercial airliner accidents occur during the flight’s cruise phase. Accidents during landing and approaches account for 65% of the crashes.

An article, which appeared in Popular Mechanics, quoted a 2007 study that found passengers sitting at the back of a plane are 40% more likely to survive a crash than those sitting in the front. However, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and a website on aircraft safety claim no “safest” seat. 

The article, which was based on a study of 20 crashes, did not take into account the developments in safety after those accidents. But on second thought, a flight data recorder is usually mounted in the aircraft’s empennage (tail section), where it is more likely to survive a severe crash.

Some reports indicate that a flash of lightning striking a plane is fatal, but safety experts said planes are built to withstand such strikes. “The metal in the fuselage and the wings conduct electricity and keep the lightning from damaging the plane,” explained Vladimir Rakov, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Florida and an expert on lightning.

Turbulence is an unpleasant but familiar experience for those who travel by air. According to the FAA, turbulence is the number one cause of injuries to passengers and flight attendants in nonfatal accidents. Two-thirds of those injuries happen above 30,000 feet – just when you’re told you can get up and move about the cabin.

The fear of flying may never leave some travelers, but the industry continues to tweak its safety net. A report from Associated Press cited few examples of how airplane accidents kick-started safety upgrades:

Cockpit alerts: The FAA ordered Boeing 737s to be upgraded so they could alert the cockpit crew of failures in the rudder control system following an investigation into a United Airlines crash in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1991 that killed 25 people.

Electrical: After a Swissair MD-11 crashed in the North Atlantic in 1998, killing 229 people, the FAA ordered the inspection, repair, and replacement of wiring, insulation, and circuit breakers in the cockpits and cabins for every carrier that flew the same model.

Reducing wear: Regulations for lubricating critical aircraft systems were tightened after an Alaska Airlines MD-83 flight crashed into the Pacific in 2000, killing all 88 onboard. Investigators discovered that the plane had excessive wear on parts of its horizontal stabilizer trim system.

“Accidents in the air have become so rare that investigators no longer find common reasons why commercial airplanes crash,” wrote Associated Press’ Chris Kahn.

“If you try to say, what’s the next common cause (of airline accidents) that we can address, the answer is there isn’t one,” Les Dorr, FAA spokesman, was quoted as saying.

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