Flying on wild guesses and wild weather

UNDAUNTED: While the writer is shaken by the tragedy of Flight QZ8501 and spooked by the thought that wild weather may cause planes to crash, she still plans to travel by air.


    Jan 02, 2015

    Flying on wild guesses and wild weather

    AFTER such an eventful, controversial and tragedy-filled year, I wanted my column to strike an upbeat note.

    But as luck, fate, whatever would have it, more bad news hit us in the remaining days of 2014: many states in Malaysia were hit by severe floods, sending thousands fleeing to temporary shelters. And, as if that wasn't bad enough, on Sunday, Indonesia AirAsia Flight QZ8501 from Surabaya to Singapore went missing with 162 people on board.

    All of us who heard the news must have reacted in a similar way - shock, followed by disbelief. Then, when the truth could not be denied, that wretched sense of loss and sorrow.

    I was at a mall in Malaysia shortly after I got the news and when I ventured into a store, the sales assistant was quite jovial about the missing plane, telling her co-worker that no Malaysians were on board, as if that made it all right.

    Indeed, most of the passengers and crew were Indonesian, but there was a Malaysian, a businessman from Sarawak, as well as one Briton, one Singaporean and three South Koreans. Among them were 16 children and one infant.

    I don't think the sales assistant meant to be callous, but it is certainly not all right. Even if Malaysia's loss was one citizen and it was an Indonesian-majority owned airline, we feel the pain because the victims are our neighbours.

    Also making the rounds are conspiracy theories making a big deal of the AirAsia pilots' request to deviate from their scheduled route by ascending to a higher altitude and the plane having turned "slightly" by a few degrees.

    All that brought back memories of the still missing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH370 and its strange flight path, which obsessed us for months in the first quarter of last year.

    But I believe there is nothing sinister in QZ8501's disappearance. In all likelihood, it was bad weather that downed the plane.

    According to press reports, the pilot asked to divert his plane because of dense storm clouds, strong winds and lightning.

    Aviation experts say modern planes can weather stormy flying conditions and experienced pilots know how to navigate such conditions. That seemed to be what the AirAsia pilots were trying to do. They were ascending to 38,000 feet when contact was lost.

    But apparently the storm clouds had risen up to 52,000 feet, which means flying at 38,000 feet would not have helped the pilots overcome the extremely adverse weather.

    All this is still speculation at this point and how big a role bad weather played in this air disaster remains unknown. But it cannot be denied that bad weather is increasingly becoming unprecedented wild weather, because of climate change.

    The world is experiencing fierce erratic weather never seen before, or at least since we started recording weather patterns. So what aviation experts think they know about bad weather may not hold water any more. We could now be flying in uncharted weather conditions.

    It is this thought that sends chills down my back. After all, almost everyone flies these days. I took almost 20 flights to destinations near and far last year.

    Early last month, my sister and brother-in-law who flew to Tokyo from Singapore had their flight redirected to Haneda Airport because of bad weather at Narita.

    My son, who also flew to Tokyo on the same day, arrived two hours late because his MAS flight out of Kuala Lumpur International Airport was delayed by bad weather. Then his connecting flight from Haneda to Chitose in Hokkaido was also delayed by two hours because of heavy snow.

    I was waiting for the three of them to join me in Hokkaido, and tearing my hair out with worry and anger over the delays.

    Now, with hindsight, I am thankful that nothing happened to them because wise decisions were made to delay and redirect their flights.

    Statistically, flying remains the safest way to travel. As Anxieties.com says, no other form of transport is as scrutinised, investigated and monitored as commercial aviation.

    According to PlaneCrashInfo.com, which tracked accident data from 1993 to 2012, we have a one-in-4.7-million chance of being killed flying on one of the world's major airlines, on any single flight. And the odds are still one in two million even if we are flying on an airline with the worst safety record.

    "The most dangerous part of your airline flight is the trip to the airport," aviation and national-security expert Carl Rochelle told NBC News.

    That is cold comfort to the bereft relatives of the passengers of Flight QZ8501. I, too, am shaken by this latest air disaster so close to home, and spooked by the thought that wild weather may cause planes to crash. But it will not stop me from flying. In fact, I plan to travel quite a bit this year on both MAS and AirAsia.

    I have started making my holiday plans, pencilling in dates, destinations and working out my budget. But I will also pay more attention to the weather conditions and work my dates to avoid typhoon or monsoon seasons, for example.

    It is my dream to see more of this big, beautiful world, which is a major item on my bucket list. That dream is possible, thanks to the phenomenal growth of the aviation industry.

    Yes, the loss of Flight QZ8501 is a horribly sad way to close the year, and I will mourn the passing of the victims. But I refuse to let fear cloud my future as it would be self-defeating.

    So let's keep our chin up, square our shoulders, bid goodbye to our annus horribilis and do all in our power to make 2015 a happier new year.