Crash, crash... but it's still safe to fly
ONE aircraft went missing and presumably ended up in the Indian Ocean, another was blown out of the skies in an apparent missile strike, a third crashed in bad weather and, in the most recent tragedy on Thursday, an Algerian jet went down as it crossed Africa in bad weather.
Four major air disasters in as many months - the last three within a week - have claimed about 700 lives. The death toll is higher than the annual average of 517 fatalities from air accidents in the past five years, according to data compiled by the International Air Transport Association (Iata).
The aviation industry is anything but flying high, and travellers are spooked.
The big question on everyone's mind: Is getting on an aircraft becoming unsafe, and what happens when even more people and planes take to the skies in the future?
Traveller anxiety is to be expected, but, as aviation experts stress, the number of incidents worldwide is, in fact, on the decline.
From 90 air accidents in 2009, there were 81 last year, going by Iata's figures. Even with the four recent disasters, the year's record to date is better than for the same period last year, based on the actual number of incidents.
The improvement comes even as the number of travellers increased from 2.2 billion in 2005 to 3.1 billion last year.
Tony Tyler, Iata's chief executive and director-general, said on Thursday: "With three tragedies in such quick succession, many people will, understandably, be asking questions about aviation safety.
"Our No. 1 priority is safety. And, despite the events of the past seven days, flying is safe."
Each day, about 100,000 flights take to the skies and land without incident.
Last year, more than three billion people flew, and there were 210 fatalities.
"Regrettably, we have surpassed that number already this year. Even so, getting on an aircraft is still among the safest activities that one can do," Mr Tyler said.
This was not the case, though, for those who were on board the four ill-fated flights.
On March 8, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and presumably crashed into the Indian Ocean with 239 crew members and passengers on board.
Four months later, on July 17, another Malaysia Airlines jet, this time flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was apparently shot down by a land-to-air missile as it crossed eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian rebels are fighting the government. There were 298 people on board Flight MH17.
The following Wednesday, on July 23, a plane belonging to Taiwan's TransAsia Airways crashed in torrential rain in the island's south-west, killing 48 people.
The next day, another tragedy - most likely weather-related as well - occurred. An Air Algerie plane - which took off from Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou - crashed on its way to Algiers, killing the 116 on board.
Jon Beatty, president and chief executive of non-profit organisation Flight Safety Foundation, said: "This is a sad cluster of crashes that are in different regions of the world, and on different aircraft and airlines.
"There is no reason to think that there is a connection. It appears to be a tragic coincidence... Travellers should not be worried."
Associate Professor Terence Fan of the Singapore Management University said: "People are instinctively reacting to each accident and saying 'that is No. 2' and 'that is No. 3' and 'one more crash again'.
"But we need to put it in perspective and look at the bigger picture, which shows that, despite air traffic growing at a rate of about 5 per cent to 6 per cent a year, the number of incidents has declined."
This does not mean all is well, though, the same experts say.
Whether it is lapses in real-time aircraft tracking which made it tough for investigators to pin down exactly where MH370 crashed, or gaps in the gathering and dissemination of critical information - such as who has missiles that can shoot planes down from what used to be considered a safe altitude of 33,000 ft (10,058m) - there are many things that need fixing.
Chance to improve safety
Experts believe the industry will become even safer because, as tragic as air disasters are, each accident presents an opportunity for learning and improvement.
It was with this in mind that Iata launched its Global Aviation Data Management programme as a comprehensive safety data warehouse in 2012.
The database includes analysis reports covering accidents, incidents, ground damage, maintenance and safety audits.
Travellers learn too, said Michael Daniel, a retired United States Federal Aviation Administration official.
After the Ukraine crash, for example, airlines and travel agents received many calls from travellers asking about air routes and whether the carriers fly over conflict and war areas.
With demand for air travel poised to grow, the global aviation community - states, regulators, service providers, airlines, airports - has to ensure that resources can keep up with the expected growth in the number of flights to keep the industry safe, Mr Daniel added.
Apart from ensuring that there will be enough pilots to fly the planes and engineers to maintain and fix them, as well as airports to handle passengers, it is critical to ensure that there will be enough air-traffic controllers to manage the skies safely.
Another major area that the industry is focusing on is how weather impacts air safety, said Hsin Chen Chung, director of Nanyang Technological University's Air Traffic Management Research Institute, which was set up jointly by the university and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore.
Whether due to global warming or some other phenomenon, extreme weather conditions are becoming more frequent and intense, he said.
Researchers at his institute are working on four research projects, two of which are weather-related.
"The focus is to see how we can improve the industry's ability to handle weather conditions... This includes being able to not just better forecast weather conditions, but also to use the data in a meaningful way, so that pilots and air-traffic controllers have access to the information and are able to use it to boost operational safety."
Mr Daniel said that airlines and regulators also need to "double their efforts on pilot training and, in particular, go-around manoeuvres in inclement weather conditions".
Despite the recent tragedies, the air-travel industry is not about to go into a deadly tailspin because, for many, flying has become a necessity.
This is also why no air accident can be taken lightly.
The industry must never forget that it has a responsibility to ensure that every flight that takes off lands safely because, at the end of every journey, there is someone waiting for a loved one.
THE STRAITS TIMES