With strict regulations governing the aviation industry, flying is one of the safest modes of transport out there today.
Words: Captain Lim Khoy Hing
You may have heard jokes about how, upon landing, a pilot announces to his passengers “The safest part of your journey is now over.” Now, this isn’t mere boasting or even just a humorous sweeping statement. I can safely say that your trip back home by road has more risks in comparison to your flight. Maintenance of motor vehicles and a whole lot of other issues are generally found to be not as stringent as compared to procedures imposed on jetliners and their pilots.
This is not to say that there are no regulations governing ground transportation. But, in the aviation industry, urgency necessitates stringent regulations and meticulous maintenance. A poorly maintained car that catches fire on the road is not as critical as a plane on fire in the air. The driver can stop the motor vehicle and get out any time, whereas pilots and passengers do not have that luxury.
Therefore, the airline industry insists that in order for planes to be certified fit for the carriage of passengers, they must be many times safer than any ground vehicle.
AVOIDING FIRES AND COLLISIONS
In the extremely remote event of an engine fire, there are two fire extinguishers specially channeled to each engine to put the fire out. There are also portable fire extinguishers in the cabin should a fire start on-board. Pilots are trained to handle fire drills in a simulator and to react promptly whenever a fire warning is activated. Rigorous training ensures that correct drills are performed safely by the crew in a coordinated manner.
For example, shutting down the correct engine and activating the fire extinguishing handle and its agents are doubly checked by each flight crew so that mistakes are completely eliminated. Through continuous training, emergency responses are perfected behind the scenes to ensure fires or other emergencies are handled safely.
Material wise, fabrics and seat cushions in the airplane cabin are all fire retardant. They are tested to ensure that they do not emit toxic fumes. Should there be smoke inside the cabin, there are emergency lights on the cabin floor to guide passengers to the nearest emergency exit for safe evacuation once the airplane lands. Such precautions are unlikely to be found on most public transportation on the ground.
The structural strength of planes must also meet incredibly high safety standards in order to be declared safe. For instance, seats are designed to withstand 16 times the force of gravity. When a Boeing 777 crash landed at the San Francisco Airport on July 6, 2013, the main structure and seats were sturdy enough to protect almost all the passengers from the fatal impact.
Today, we also have the traffic anti-collision avoidance system, which helps to ensure planes do not collide with each other in the air. If two planes are on a collision course, computers on board will alert the pilot with commands such as ‘Climb, Climb!’ or ‘Descend, Descend!’ The pilot would immediately fly the plane accurately using his flight instruments and stay within the green band, which is the safe zone, until clear of danger. A ‘Clear of Conflict!’ notification will be issued once the plane has safely avoided the approaching aircraft.
The pilot would then submit a report of this ‘near miss’ to the air traffic controller. Investigations would then be carried out to determine why this dangerous event took place and what measures should be taken to ensure that the skies are safer in the future.
Can modern planes fly upside down? Although one quite often sees planes flying inverted in air shows, this is not possible with modern commercial jetliners. While this scenario is often depicted in Hollywood movies, it is quite impossible, as physical controls on a plane do not allow it to fly beyond a particular position.
There is also another important safety feature that ensures a plane does not stall (the loss of lift in the wings) in the air. If on-board computers sense that the plane is on the verge of stalling, the automatic power system or the thrust levers will kick in. This is to prevent the plane from falling from the sky.
It must be stressed that all these safety features can only function properly if, and only if, all the computers are operative. In the Airbus, there are five flight control computers to ensure that the plane is controllable in any emergency situation. Compare that with the absence of any computers in an average car on the ground! I believe we have yet to reach a stage of automation or technology in the car that is as sophisticated as that of the airplane.
In 2012, the Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research recorded about 19 car fatalities per day, around 6,930 deaths a year! If there were some form of ground traffic anti-collision avoidance system installed, it would be a major step towards reducing these unacceptable deaths on the roads!
A RELIABLE VEHICLE
In the United States, 2012 was one of the safest years for commercial airlines in history; the fatality rate for airline passengers was one in 45 million flights. According to Arnold Barnett, a professor of statistics, flying has become so reliable that a traveller in the US could fly every day for an average of 123,000 years before being involved in a fatal crash!
Believe it or not, the fact is that planes and engines have become more and more reliable. Advanced warning technology has sharply reduced once-common accidents such as mid-air collisions or crashes into mountainous terrain in adverse weather.
The grounding of the latest Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet after the fire issue with its lithium battery illustrates this era of caution. The last time a fleet was grounded was in 1979, after a DC-10 crashed shortly after take-off.
According to retired US Airways pilot Captain Sully, who executed a heroic water landing in 2009, “It’s important not to define safety as the absence of accidents”. Captain Sully landed an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River when both engines failed after collision with a flock of birds.
The aviation industry takes safety very seriously. It does so by continually improving its procedures, as well as enforcing the myriad rules and regulations that may, initially, cause annoyance, but are actually motivated by deep concern for the welfare of passengers and flight crew.
So, the next time your captain welcomes you on board, you can sit back, relax and enjoy your flight, and feel safe in the knowledge that you’re probably in better hands in the air than on the ground!
Captain Lim Khoy Hing is a former AirAsia Airbus A320 and AirAsia X A330/A340 pilot who also used to fly the Boeing 777. He has logged a total of more than 25,500 flying hours and is now a Simulator Flight Instructor with AirAsia X. In his spare time, he shares his opinion on aviation issues with others. For more air travel and aviation stories, check out his website, ‘Just About Flying’ at www.askcaptainlim.com.
Capt. Lim’s first book, LIFE IN THE SKIES is now available for purchase onboard all AirAsia flights (AirAsia X, Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia) or online at AirAsia Megastore at www.airasiamegastore.com/life-in-the-skies.html It is also available at all major book stores in Malaysia and Singapore. Enjoy the great collection of articles, anecdotal stories and observations of this veteran aviator in this book.