Rescuers work at the site where a plane careered off the runway at Vnukovo Airport in Moscow on December 29 last year. Despite several fatal incidents, 2012 was the safest on record for air travel. Photo: AP
As a young teenager, I squibbed the chance to take an aerobatic flight in a Tiger Moth; no way was I going to join family friends doing loop-de-loop in a crop-duster.
I watched from the ground as they flew over our farm. I was happy to be a land-lubber. It seemed prudent since there was a major aviation disaster every other month back then and it took years into my 20s before I ceased to be a white-knuckle flyer.
In fact, in among all the terrorist bombings around the world, I reckon the scariest time to be an avid traveller was the 1980s, the decade following airline deregulation in the US, when one of the world’s most advanced Western countries struggled to allow new companies the freedom to serve the aviation consumer market, on one hand, and regulate it safely, on the other.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the US and the world started to get their act together and become serious about making commercial flying safe enough that fear of it was simply an irrational neurosis that could be overcome.
Well, it has taken more than two decades since the wild, pioneering days of the jet age; we haven’t reached nirvana, but, to use the cliche, you can see it from here.
According to the aviation experts, not only was 2012 the safest year on record for the amount of travelling that was undertaken, the leap in the statistical safety of flying was so great that it’s unlikely it will be repeated this year.
According to Flightglobal.com’s safety analyst David Learmount, last year’s accident rate of one per 2.3 million flights is 65 per cent better than 2011’s one per 1.4 million flights.
The International Air Transport Association’s senior vice-president of safety, operations and infrastructure, Gűnther Matschnigg, put it another way. “If you were to take a flight every day, odds are, you would fly 14,000 years without being in an accident,” he said.
Not a single IATA member – that is, not one reputable airline – had a “hull-loss” accident last year in which an airliner was written off. To emphasise how important it is to stay on the beaten track and keep away from obscure airlines, here’s the list of last year’s deadliest accidents:
April 2: UTair Flight 120, an ATR-72, crashes shortly after take-off from Tyumen, Russia, killing 31 of the 43 passengers and crew on board.
April 20: Bhoja Air Flight 213, a Boeing 737, crashes near Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in bad weather, killing all of the 127 passengers and crew on board.
May 9: a Sukhoi Superjet 100 on a demonstration tour of Indonesia crashes into Mount Salak, near Jakarta, killing all 45 passengers and crew on board.
June 3: Dana Air Flight 992, a McDonnell Douglas MD-83 carrying 146 passengers and 7 crew members crashes in a suburb of Lagos, Nigeria, on approach to the airport, killing all on board and an estimated 6 more people on the ground.
However, because the calendar year statistics are finalised during the the Christmas-New Year silly season, it’s also possible that you have read ludicrous stories in the Australian media about a couple of German creators of lists claiming that Finnair – a fine European carrier, no doubt – is “the safest airline in the world”.
The pair, operating under the name of the Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre, have little credibility in the aviation industry and not a single word of their findings was reported by reputable US and European aviation media such as Flightglobal.com and Air Transport World.
But, in the week after New Year, when specialist aviation reporters were mostly on holiday leave, JACDEC showed considerable skill in public relations in having its report published in Australia.
There was curiosity about the report in Australia because it rated Qantas lowly, but the airline was rightly indignant. "This is not a reputable index recognised by the aviation industry or safety experts," a Qantas spokeswoman told Fairfax.
In fact, the giveaway for me was in the organisation’s amateurish website, complete with black-and-white pictures of the founders and a cavalcade of literal errors: it looks like it was thrown together by junior secondary students as a project.
Have you had a close shave in your flying life? Are you required by work or other circumstances to fly far off the beaten track? How do you inform yourself about flight safety before you travel?