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In spite of the horrific incident where a US airplane's engine shattered, breaking a window and killing a passenger, flying is still safer than taking a bath, aviation experts say.

 

 

Shrapnel from the engine reportedly pierced the Southwest jet's fuselage, blew out a window, and caused the cabin of the aeroplane to depressurize. The incident left one passenger, mother-of-two Jennifer Riordan, dead and seven others injured. Tammie Jo Shults, the pilot of the flight (who used to fly US Navy fighter jets), guided the Dallas-bound aeroplane to a safe landing in Philadelphia.

"The Air New Zealand engine inspection regime recently put in place (for its Rolls-Royce engines after problems were identified in March with the engine compressor) and the structural issues they experienced earlier this year, are a similar issue, just with a different engine," NZ aviation expert Irene King says.

What was unusual, King said, is that the failure happened in a CFM56-7B engine, one of the most commonly used aircraft engines in the world.

Rarer still was the nature and type of the damage. 

"Sometime there is just an alignment of events: A very rare incident with a highly reliable, proven and tested engine and even rarer in terms of where it hit the aircraft.

"For this reason the point of separation of the fan blade will be exhaustively examined to see whether there is an inherent design fault, although this would normally have shown up by now given the time this engine type has been in service. 

"In some ways it almost appears akin to a tree falling across a road and a car just happening to be on the road at the very same time and the passengers were killed. It has the feel of an absolutely random set of events combining, together however in aviation even random events are exhaustively investigated and this is what makes the industry the safest form of mass public transport."

It is tragic that Riordan, a Wells Fargo executive and mother of two from Albuquerque, New Mexico - died on that flight

International Air Transport Association (IATA) senior vice president for safety and flight operations, Gilberto Lopez Meyer, said in the association's 2017 safety report that there were no passenger fatalities on jet transport aircraft worldwide that year. IATA member airlines (which include Air New Zealand) recorded zero fatal accidents or hull losses last year involving either jet or turbocraft, he added. 

The association found that the airline industry has improved its overall safety performance by 54 per cent over the past 10 years. The accident rate in 2016 was 1.61 accidents per million flights compared with 3.53 in 2007, it said. 

This reinforces a point airline safety experts like to make: Flying is extraordinarily safe.

Airline travel kills fewer people per year than swing sets (20 deaths), bathtubs (300 deaths) or staircases (1600 deaths). 

As such, King said people have come to expect that airline disasters won't happen and "tend to forget that they are in a metal trajectory hurtling through the sky at great speed whilst defying gravity". 

We need to bear in mind that "when things go wrong, there is only one way and that is down". 

Before you resolve never to fly again, however, it's important to remember that modern aircraft are built to handle all kinds of emergencies. 

"Now fortunately modern aircraft are built with multiple redundant systems and large aircraft can fly long distances on one engine," King said. 

"This event also demonstrates aircraft can land safely on one engine and passengers chances of survival are good. Scenarios play out differently of course but I suspect even on take-off, assuming there were no nearby significant geological/terrain obstacles, the outcome would have been the same – most passengers will survive."

 

So why is modern air travel so safe?

Part of the reason is that aircraft have equipment that guards against problems that once led to crashes.

Remember wind shear? Catastrophes resulting from a sudden "downburst" used to be relatively common. But the last one took place over 20 years ago. Since then, the Federal Aviation Administration put out a wind-shear avoidance course that all pilots take, while aircraft manufacturers have installed wind-shear detection systems.

Or how about "controlled flight in terrain," as the act of slamming into the side of a mountain or building is called in the airline business?

Crashes of this sort, which used to take place from time to time when pilots became confused or disoriented, are now vanishingly rare. Planes are now equipped with systems that set off alarms if a pilot is in danger of hitting something, including another plane in the sky.

Aircraft now come equipped with automated "fly-by-wire" systems, which can intervene to prevent pilots from making a mistake. As the writer William Langewiesche has noted in several articles and books, pilots resent the degree to which automation has taken over so much decision-making in the cockpit. But it has saved lives.

The second reason is that major airlines generally do not scrimp on safety. Plane crashes generate huge lawsuits and cause people to avoid the airline whose plane has crashed, at least temporarily. Conversely, as the writer and airline expert RD Sussmann-Deberry puts it, "A well-maintained aircraft is an on-time aircraft."

Finally, there are the pilots themselves. "I would argue that the most improved "equipment" has been pilots," said Joe Brancatelli, who writes the "Joe Sent Me" newsletter for frequent travellers. "They are more mature and better trained."

In the vast majority of plane crashes, pilot error is usually found to have played a big role. In the 2006 Comair crash, the pilot mistakenly tried to take off using a runway that was too short for the aircraft. And in the 2009 Colgan Air crash, both the pilot and co-pilot made a series of inexplicable errors that caused them to lose control of the plane as it prepared to land.

After the 2009 crash, the FAA did something the National Transportation Safety Board had been urging for years: It tightened rules meant to prevent pilot fatigue. Among other things, it limited the amount of time a pilot could be flying a domestic flight to nine hours, with a mandated 10 hours of rest before flying. And it increased the number of hours of required flight time from 250 to 1500 for a pilot to get a commercial pilot's license.

In New Zealand, the required flight time for a commercial pilot's licence is 200 hours, however King said the training regime is very different here and based on both minimum hours and competency. 

"The airlines have rigorous selection mechanisms which are testing for competency as opposed to hours sitting in a seat."

 

There is a lot of debate globally about pilot training, she said.  

"In Europe and Asia it's about competency in a specific role, [for example] two pilot operations and initial training into the role of co-pilot. In the US it's about hours and in New Zealand it's about having a co-pilot competent and capable of taking on the command role. No one system has been shown to deliver significantly better outcomes than the other. It comes down to the culture of the aviation company."   

In the US, smaller communities say the additional flight time requirements have resulted in a decrease in flights to their towns. Airlines say they are going to lead to a pilot shortage as veteran pilots retire.

But there is no doubt that the rules have had a lot to do with why US carriers have seen so few fatalities. Recall Chesley Sullenberger - the famous "Sully" - who in 2009 had both the skill and the presence of mind to land his hobbled plane on the Hudson River, saving the lives of the 155 passengers on board.

Or think again about Shults, who expertly landed her damaged plane under difficult circumstances. When you require 1500 hours of flight time before allowing a pilot to fly passengers in the US, that is probably the kind of pilot you're going to get.

As it has in so many other areas of government, President Donald Trump's administration wants to reduce or eliminate many of the FAA's safety rules, including the 1500-hour requirement. Airline safety groups and all the experts I spoke to on Wednesday vehemently object.

"Deregulating airline safety is a terrible idea," said Steven Marks, a lawyer who specialises in plane crashes. "If you deregulate banking, it can cause financial problems. But with airlines, the consequences of deregulation can be death."

What happened on Tuesday should strengthen their hand. If the 1500-hour rule is retained as a result of the publicity surrounding Shults's remarkable landing, then Jennifer Riordan will not have died in vain.

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