17 Mar 2014

After the missing Malaysia flight, is it safe to fly?

A Boeing 777 has seemingly disappeared, along with the 239 people on board. But is Malaysia Airlines more risky? And is it safe to fly at all?

How safe is flying?

It is every nervous flyer’s worst nightmare: a flight gone AWOL with no explanation, and no way of contacting those on board.

In reality however, there are enough security procedures in place and hoops for passengers and staff to jump though, to mean that stepping on board an airplane is very safe. When it comes to UK operators, you are 15 times more likely to be hit by lightning than to die on a plane, according to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

The organisation is also keen to point out that the fatality rate for flying is very favourable when you compare it to other modes of transport: a rate of 0.003 deaths per billion kilometres travelled, compared to 43.27 as a mere pedestrian.

Have people stopped flying?

Around 435,500 British nationals visit Malaysia each year (none were on the missing MH370), but when you widen it out, 750,000,000 people fly within Asia alone every year.

It goes without saying that the vast majority have a completely routine flying experience. And travel operators, including Thomas Cook, told Channel 4 News that one mystery disappearance has not deterred future flyers in the face of low cost flights.

However experts say that if you want to maximise your safety chances, flying with a British or Irish airline is best bet, in terms of safety: the UK’s fatal accident rate is 57 per cent lower than the rest of the EU combined. The CAA doesn’t have figures for the rest of the world, but it is safe to say that it has more procedures in place to identify potential causes – and reduce them – than elsewhere.

The Aviation Safety Network also has this handy database of airlines that have suffered an accident, serious incident or hijacking.

Is Malaysia Airlines safe?

The airline has a good track record for safety in the past. But that hasn’t stopped passengers from shunning Malaysia Airlines when booking future flights, travel expert and travel editor for the Independent, Simon Calder, told Channel 4 News (see above). “There is no effect on overall passenger confidence about flying, no effect on the Boeing 777, the aircraft involved – people are very happy to go to Malaysia on holiday,” he said.

“The one aspect that there does seem to be concern about is Malaysia Airlines. I guess that’s simply because every day we are seeing on our screens an image of this aircraft taking off, and no-one knows where it is.”

Is this fair? Probably not, he adds: “Despite the terrible time that it is going through, and despite the reputational damage it will almost certainly get, it remains a very safe airline.”

Could a plane disappearing happen here?

One of the reasons the Malaysia Airlines plane seems to have disappeared so effectively, is because it was passing from one airspace to another at precisely the time it lost communication. Air-traffic controllers in Malaysia had just handed over the flight to Vietnam before the Acars data-transmission system was disabled.

Could it happen elsewhere? The tracking of airplanes relies on countries’ satellites and monitoring procedure: there is no global tracking system that monitors aircrafts at all times. And if a pilot disables the transponder communication equipment, as it appears that the co-pilot of the missing plane did, there is little that people on the ground can do.

However in Britain, and the UK, “many systems would start to flash”, air safety adviser David Gleave told Channel 4 News. “We have a lot of backups here. In countries like Indonesia, the procedures are much more lax in terms of how they communicate from one airspace to another.”

Authorities automatically monitor an airplane moving from one airspace to another within Europe. And if there no response once warnings are activated, and the plane is veering off course from its intended flight path, jets are scrambled. “The threat then escalates,” Mr Gleave added, “and then if necessary, military jets will be called to go and investigate the radar return that’s being tracked at that point.”

Will air travel change as a result?

Airport security tightened beyond recognition after the September 11 attacks. The so-called “toothpaste bomb” threats were followed by restrictions on flying with liquids in hand luggage. So will the recent disappearance impact how we fly?

Malaysia Airlines have already said security procedures will be tightened from now on. But passport control is likely to be the main focus in future, said Mr Calder.

“I think longer term, we will see calls for much tighter controls on who is actually on the flight, so that there will be, for example, passport checks against a centralised database of missing travel documents,” he told Channel 4 News. “And also, there have been calls already for having an air marshal on board a flight, perhaps on the flight deck, to stop unwanted intrusions – and indeed to keep an eye on the pilots.”