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Air Travel Risks

Statistics can hide more than they reveal. Take air travel, for instance. It is supposedly so safe that the odds of any person flying on any major airlines and dying is 1 in 4.7 million. But last year in just one week beginning from July 17, three planes crashed and a total of 462 passengers lost their lives. A Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down in the Donetsk region of Ukraine by pro–Russia rebels with a suspected BARAK missile. Next a TransAsia Airways plane crashed in Taiwan, followed by an Air Algerie plane in Mali. Air travel in Southeast Asia was particularly hit in 2014, with Malaysia the worst sufferer with three disasters that spooked air travelers around the world. Rescuers are still fishing out bodies and debris off the coast of Borneo, near which the aircraft of an Indonesian affiliate of Malaysian AirAsia crashed into the Java sea in extreme weather with 162 on board last Sunday. Earlier in March last year, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing went missing with 239 people on board. The mystery has not been cracked yet, with satellite data revealing that the plane went completely in the opposite direction over the Indian ocean and that its transponders and ACARS data transmission, which make it visible to civilian air traffic controllers, were switched off suddenly. Speculations abound as to whether the pilot committed suicide or terrorists with knowledge of the plane’s intricate controls took over in mid–air.

Overall 2014 was one of the deadliest years in recent times with nearly 900 people dead or missing in 20 air crashes around the world. But the previous year 2013 was the safest since 1945, with 265 people killed in flight accidents. The worst year on record was 1972 in which 55 planes crashed and 2,429 people died. In fact, air travel experts believe that overall the world is of late enjoying the safest–ever period in aviation history. According to them, the best that can be expected statistically from global aviation safety net is about 11 to 21 accidents per year with probable casualties ranging from 225 to 625 passengers. Absolutely zero accidents in air travel is thus still a distant dream, despite rapid advances in aviation technology and safety protocols. The three Malaysian air disasters point to some disturbing trends in flying in Southeast Asia. Low–cost airlines have entered the market and expanded rapidly, leading to burgeoning air travel for business and pleasure throughout the region. This has put pressure on air traffic controllers, and safety regulations are not being rigorously enforced as in the past. There are serious allegations that less experienced pilots are being recruited and pushed to work longer hours, while standards of aircraft maintence have dropped alarmingly. Most Asian countries lack adequate number of flying schools to provide airlines with pilots so airlines turn to expatriate pilots from USA and Europe to fill the gap. However this leads to the problem of integration of diverse cockpit crews. Among no–frills carriers of this region, AirAsia has already expanded into India.

Indian skies fortutely remained accident–free last year, apart from four minor accidents involving small airplanes of non–scheduled operators. In fact, no air accident has occurred in scheduled commercial air transport after the Air India Express crash in Mangalore in May 2010 that claimed 158 lives. Regulatory interventions and heightened safety surveillance carried out by the aviation regulator DGCA during the year has been effective. Reportedly, there has been an exponential growth in bird–hits and animal strikes at various airports, due to increasing population clusters near airports. With low–cost airlines pushing the margins in India, the same problems that have plagued various airlines in Southeast Asia may cause another tragedy here. This is something the Civil Aviation Ministry, DGCA and Airports Authority AAI must vigilantly address with a coordited action plan, and implement it with zero tolerance for errors. The same applies to air travel to and from Assam with its feeder routes not in satisfactory flying–worthy condition.

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Ankur Kalita

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