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What a difference a year makes

by Charlotte Branson BALPA Media and Communications Officer

In our spring 2018 edition of The Log we rather happily included a statistic on our news pages triumphing the safest year on record – boasting not a single fatal commercial jet crash worldwide in the year of 2017. The magazine went to print in February but unfortunately by the time the edition landed on members’ doorsteps in March, 2018 was already proving to be much, much different. Of course, we weren’t being na├»ve, 2017 was a fantastic safety achievement but was in no way an indication that aviation safety had peaked and that we could send our flight safety department off to an early retirement. No, as pleasing as the statistics of 2017 were, the first few months of 2018 proved that aviation still cannot rest on its laurels when it comes to safety.
 
Not such a happy new year
A runway excursion by Pegasus Airlines in Turkey on 13th January was the first major incident, although happily in this case all 168 people on board survived (although the aircraft did not). Unfortunately, it was downhill from here, with two fatal incidents occurring in February. Since then, there have been four more fatal commercial accidents, with a series of other high-profile, non-fatal incidents, one of the most recent being the Lion Air flight 610, which saw all 189 people on board killed when the flight crashed shortly after take-off from Soekarno-Hatta international airport in Jakarta. This took the total fatalities for 2018 to over 700 people.
 
Outside of the commercial jet industry
It would also be remiss of us not to point out that while 2017 was the safest in the history of commercial airlines, another significant proportion of our membership – helicopter pilots – must also be accounted for. Perhaps due to the relatively low fatality numbers on single helicopter accidents, it’s not often we see these disasters make the front pages. That is until October 2018, when the Leicester City Football Club owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, and four others were killed when the billionaire’s helicopter crashed in the club’s car park just after take-off. This brought helicopter operations to the fore and highlighted the vulnerabilities faced.
 
Is aviation becoming less safe?
We should remember that while 2017 was fatality-free, there was still a number of potentially disastrous near-misses – for example, we’re incredibly thankful that an Air Canada incident, in which the pilots attempted to land on a taxiway containing multiple aircraft, was narrowly averted with a go-around. This could have caused the worst crash in aviation history, drawing parallels with the current worst disaster from Tenerife in 1977, where two planes collided. One of the causes cited in the accident report? Fatigued pilots.
 
However, it must also be remembered that despite a troubled 2018, aviation does continue to become safer. The Log’s own resident Old Git says in his BALPA blog titled ‘Were the 50s and 60s really the Golden Age for air travel?’ “Today passengers can rest assured that air travel in an established airline is the safest form of public transport. Modern safety levels far exceed those of the 1950s and 1960s, when crash landings, structural failures, injuries from turbulence and mid-air collisions were prevalent. At current safety levels, you would need to be continuously airborne for two and a half average lifetimes of 75 years, to be statistically liable to be involved in an accident!” Indeed, aviation has become so highly regarded for its safety culture that some in the industry are now working closely with the NHS to pass on some of the practices in our industry. However, what is sometimes referred to as the ‘swiss cheese model’ can mean that in some cases, all the holes align and a series of problems can lead to an air disaster.
 
New challenges ahead
While some safety issues continue and evolve, such as fatigue, we’re seeing new threats to our safety emerging. Drones have been a big topic for BALPA (particularly in recent weeks as a result of the incident at Gatwick), and indeed we recently saw changes to the law around where drones can be flown thanks to BALPA’s campaigning. However, we believe the new laws are far too relaxed and we are therefore pushing the Government to strengthen these laws. In 2018, we did manage to secure increased laws around the shining of lasers at aircraft, which we hope will go some way to combating the alarmingly high incidence rate of laser attacks. And, of course, as we see a rise in automation, increases in casual pilot contracts, and continued commercial pressure, just as much as ever, our flight safety specialists need to be working very hard indeed.