Recent accidents highlight gaps in air safety procedures, need for urgent improvements
The world’s flight safety community has been badly hurt in the last year by accidents that have taken nearly 1000 lives. In this unprecedented psychodrama, long before final investigation reports are completed, it is obvious that technical issues are not the only cause. At the same time, it would not make sense to solely accuse human factors; we all share responsibility in a wide-ranging loss of vigilance. Flight safety has never been better, but recent accidents have revealed unacceptable weaknesses, including a failure of threat and risk assessment and poor pilot training.
The worst case is the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash in Ukraine. This was not the first time that an airliner was hit by a surface-to-air missile. And this tragedy was not only related to aviation safety, or security.
Looking beyond the outraged comments, we don’t need the International Civil Aviation Organization, International Air Transport Association and other trade groups to express indignation or a lack of understanding. As the European Cockpit Association stressed in a strongly worded statement issued in late July: “In hindsight, flying civilian aircraft over an area where powerful anti-aircraft [missiles] capable of bringing down an airliner at cruising altitude are in active use is not acceptable; so the question is what went wrong and how do we fix it?”
Reading newspapers and watching television news programs was enough to make the point, without any help from intelligence experts or warning given by Notams. Airlines—all airlines—simply should strictly avoid flying over war zones. Such preventive measures make flight times longer and involve increased fuel consumption, but make sense. More than two decades ago, during the first Balkan war, Malaysia’s flights between Europe and Kuala Lumpur departed from the usual flight plan day after day, as did aircraft operated by other carriers. This time, apparently, operations managers were too accustomed to such dangers or underestimated the threat. Such behavior can be characterized as a loss of vigilance, inappropriate risk assessment, or a lack of common sense.
At the other end of the spectrum, the crash of a TransAsia Airways ATR 72-500 at Magong, Taiwan, in low visibility, reminds us of the true danger of non-precision approaches in bad weather. The airline’s in-house regulations were rapidly revised, visibility requirements raised and, in case of doubt, pilots encouraged to return to the airport or divert to another destination.
Swiftair’s MD-83, which was operating the Air Algerie flight that crashed in Mali, most probably was hit by thunderstorms, but in conditions that do not explain a fatal crash. The twinjet’s cockpit voice recorder was not working—a possible indication of poor maintenance—and an explanation for the loss of control could remain a mystery.
In other words, negligence is affecting flight safety, in sharp contrast with overall progress achieved in the past several years. This is disappointing, although it may not be a lasting trend, according to Bertrand de Courville. He is a newly retired Airbus A330 captain and long was a member of Air France’s flight safety team. “We should not give too much importance to particular events,” he says, although he acknowledges risk management should be enhanced and stresses unclear trends and correlations between accident scenarios while acknowledging an erosion of risk awareness and safety commitment at all levels. In 2012, de Courville submitted similar comments to the European Commercial Aviation Safety Team, an analysis endorsed by the European Aviation Safety Agency.
Jean Pinet, a former Concorde test pilot and founder of Airbus Training, seeks to adopt a broader view. He believes flight safety is reaching cognitive and neurophysiologic limits. Worse than that, weaknesses identified over the years have been treated with rubber repair patches while the whole tire needed to be replaced, Pinet adds. He also agrees that flight safety efforts are suffering from a loss of vigilance.
In the same vein, Jean-Claude Buck, a retired Air France pilot and former head of the French civil aviation in-flight control team, expresses doubts about airline pilots’ training. On flights over war zones, he says the final decision on an aircraft’s flight path should remain with the captain and certainly should not be made by ground staff.
Remarkably, apart from the Malaysian tragedies, public opinion about air travel has not been severely troubled by the recent series of crashes. But, of course, that is no consolation.