A great year for aviation | Sunday Observer

A great year for aviation

Flying is the safest mode of travel, there is no doubt about it. That is a statement we have made in these columns many times. More than 100,000 civilian flights take off and land all over the world every day. At any given moment, there are more than 13,000 planes in the air, worldwide, excluding military aircraft.

Yet, accidents do occur. But the fact that hundreds of passengers can die in one plane crash makes every crash a major news item. In contrast, more than 1.2 million die every year on the world’s chaotic roads but this fact is rarely highlighted. In comparison, only 550 fatalities were reported in the aviation sector last year in 16 incidents. This was a 900 percent rise over 2017, one of the safest years for aviation in recent memory. But to put things into perspective, in 2018 there were 45 million flights and 4.5 billion passengers. Essentially, two thirds of the world’s population rode a plane. Yet, only 555 passengers died. The most recent incident was the crash of a brand new Boeing 737 Max 8 belonging to Lion Air of Indonesia with the loss of 189 lives.

History

As for the other crashes, here is a list: 195 deaths took place in Iran, Nepal, and Russia. These countries are all known for using old planes, especially, in Iran’s case, with little or no maintenance; 112 deaths occurred in a single crash from José Martí International Airport in Cuba; one death occurred on the Southwest Flight 1380, where debris shattered a window in a freak accident. In another incident, an airline worker stole a Horizon Air Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 turboprop plane at the Seattle Tacoma Airport, which crashed an hour later resulting in the death of the perpetrator.

Gruesome as it may seem to say this, aviation experts, crash investigators and aircraft manufacturers learn with and from every accident. Most airlines implement the recommendations of crash investigators. In fact, most of today’s safety and security features of aircraft can be traced back to crashes and accidents. One example is the Lockerbie incident, where a Pan Am Boeing 747 flying from London to New York was destroyed by a bomb placed in the forward cargo hold by suspected Libyan terrorists exactly 30 years ago. This, and the events of 9/11 led to tighter security and baggage restrictions.

Aircraft manufacturers, mainly Boeing and Airbus (but also a few others such as Comac, Sukhoi and Embraer), airlines and government aviation certification agencies are constantly improving airline safety. These can be minor adjustments or major safety investments.

For example, Delta is letting its pilots choose turbulence-free routes through the use of a dedicated Weather Centre. At their Command Centre, they use a team of over 20 meteorologists to study the air along their routes in great detail. This information is then processed in vast supercomputers that are able to create a map or cross-section of the sky, and then sent out to special iPads on board of 80% of the Delta fleet.

Technology

This app translates all the weather data into simple, easy to use information that pilots can quickly glance at to better calculate their route. It essentially gives a roadmap of all the hazards and how specific they are. A large storm might only have a small slice of turbulence that the pilot can easily avoid without course correction or fuel burn. Delta is expected to release this technology to other airlines soon.

In another development, pilots now can reference ‘synthetic vision’ in the cockpit, a system that consults databases and onboard sensors to create a ‘moving map’ display. Via a computer monitor or a head-up projection, 3-D images provide a clear virtual image of the terrain and the airport as the crew approaches to land even in heavy fog or rain. By 2020, nearly all aircraft will be mandated to be equipped with ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) technology.

The ADS-B devices—which can be installed on any aircraft, from the biggest airliner to the smallest private plane—provide signals that enable pilots to track all other aircraft in their vicinity on a screen in their cockpit, regardless of weather or visibility.

Future

Airlines have been working to create a space-based plane tracing system (after the mysterious loss of MH 370), using Iridium Next, satellites that will extend ADS-B coverage everywhere, covering 100 percent of the sky. The system not only provides an unprecedented safety backup, but will also enable operators to fly more efficiently, reducing costs. The final satellite launch is scheduled for this month, when the system will become fully operational.

The next few years will bring even more safety advances for planes, navigation systems, ground control and airport security. The world will need a more comprehensive approach to drone control as rogue drones shut down London Gatwick, the busiest single runway airport in the world.

But do not leave safety entirely in the airline’s hands. There are things you too can do to help make travel a bit safer for you and others. For example, be sure to pack your batteries for devices in your carry on, and ensure that they are reputable build quality. This is to prevent fires as we saw on a recent China Southern flight. Stay up to date on weather conditions and don’t fly during bad weather unless you really have to. Fly onboard airlines that are regularly maintained and use relatively new planes.

Always check

For the record, among the safest airlines in the world according to Airlineratings.com are Air New Zealand, Alaska Airlines, All Nippon Airways, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Etihad, EVA Air, Finnair and Hawaiian. And last but not least, watch the safety demonstration when you board. As the safety leaflets point out, different airlines and airliners may have different safety systems, so it pays to watch it even if you fly frequently.

Always, always check your nearest emergency exit. Flight crew are trained to evacuate an aircraft in just 90 seconds – which they did in Emirates plane at the Dubai Airport before it turned into a fireball.

Last year also saw many aviation milestones – Singapore Airlines launched the world’s longest non-stop flight, from Singapore to Newark, New Jersey (almost 18 hours). Qantas already has Perth to London flights but plans Sydney-London by 2022. New aircraft such as the Airbus A220 and Boeing 737 Max 8 entered service. Boeing also launched the construction of the new 777-9 while plans are afoot to offer a new Mid-range plane called the 797. At least 12 new airports around the world will open this year.

And finally, physical immigration counters could soon be a thing of the past as many airports have launched completely biometric processing for arriving and departing passengers. These are indeed exciting times in aviation and we hope 2019 will prove to be yet another very safe year. 

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