Reality of Flight Safety (from a tv producer)

With all the aviation disasters that have occurred over the summer, I can’t help feel the need to put them into perspective. You see, recently, I had the privilege of working for the world’s longest running and most respected aviation disaster television shows – Mayday on Discovery Channel (or Air Crash Investigation – as it’s known outside Canada on National Geographic International.)

Every episode begins with a crash. Then through the course of the show, we follow the air accident investigators as they get to the bottom of these mysteries. The show is told through first person accounts and expert testimony from the people who were involved with the disaster and investigation. This show is a perfect mix of the technical challenges to uncover the root causes of these accidents and the human side of the story, the tragedy.

Before I joined this show, I really had no idea about the instituted practices that keep our air travel safe. Sure I heard the statistic about how flying is supposedly much safer than driving etc. But like many people out there, I didn’t completely internalize that stat to alleviate all butterflies when turbulence hits at 30-thousand feet.

One of my first few weeks working on the show, many of the core staff decided to go out for drinks after work one night. I joined them. I had to ask – because I was a little fearful myself, ‘How has working for this show made you feel about flying?’ I mean, come on! The incredible CGI alone is enough to burn some pretty horrific images into my memory. Surely if you work in this aviation disaster business, you’d become acutely aware of every single little possible thing that could go wrong on these flights. At the time, this show was just finishing up its 12th season (now moving into its 15th season) and my new fellow colleagues had been working for it for many years. When I asked them that question, they shocked me with their response. All six of them responded simultaneously – in their own way, “We feel safer.” What?!? How could that be?

As I came to learn through this process of speaking with many top air accident investigators in the world, safety provisions are worked into every single step of the process in the aviation business. That’s especially true for first tier commercial airliners based out of North America, Europe, and Asia. For an accident to occur on an airliner from any of these places, it has to be a real freak occurrence – not just one thing that slipped through the cracks, but many. I’ve heard it described as having many layers of Swiss cheese lined up with the holes in such a way that only then can an accident slip through. When you hear of an accident occurring today, it’s not usually just one thing that goes wrong, but a series of many unfortunate events that lined up to cause the specific tragedy. And if one of those things hadn’t of happened, then neither would the accident. A perfect example is the Concorde accident that happened just outside the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris back in 2000. The only reason that beautiful flying machine burst into flames is because a tiny strip of metal, 43cm long, fell on an extremely long runway at the wrong time, on the wrong angle, and precisely the wrong place. For that reason, 113 people died that day and an incredible feat of supersonic technology no longer graces our skies.

That said there are exceptions to this rule. For instance, here in Canada our Crew Resource Management standards that Transport Canada regulates are sorely behind. This lack of up to date standards played a big part in the 2011 First Air accident that occurred up in Resolute Bay. But it was just one reason in an unlikely chain of events that produced this tragedy that killed 12 people, leaving only three survivors. Needless to say, as a Canadian, I was shocked that our CRM standards are out of date. Crew Resource Management consists of a set of rules to determine how a cockpit crew can work together most effectively. First tier airliners in this country, like Air Canada, voluntary follow the most up to date CRM rules, so at least their pilots have the latest tools backed up by science and learned from past incidents and accidents. That Resolute Bay accident was a major wake up call for First Air and hopefully will also be for Transport Canada to make sure these new CRM standards become mandatory.

The bottom line is any time there is an accident or major incident, air accident investigators undertake thorough investigations to find out every single potential factor that played a role in why these accidents occurred. If you watch Mayday (Air Crash Investigation) closely, you’ll notice every episode ends on the safety lessons learned from the particular accident that have made flying safer. You can’t say the same for driving. If there’s an accident on the road, some other Joe Blow likely won’t be learning any lessons from it, so the mistakes are repeated over and over because we’re all just amateurs driving our own cars. The same cannot be said for the aviation industry. One person makes a mistake, from aircraft maintenance side to crew actions to cockpit design, generally everyone learns from it and changes are made to prevent it from happening again. The stakes are higher in the air and the aviation industry knows it and proactively acts on it.

If you don’t believe me, here are some cold hard stats: according to MIT statistics professor Arnold Barnett, flying in the USA (it’d be pretty close in Canada too) “has become so reliable that a traveler could fly every day for an average of 123,000 years before being in a fatal crash.” While that article I just linked to was published over a year and a half ago, the lessons in it about the cautious manner in which safety lessons in the aviation industry are implemented hold true. Even globally, according to this article, your chances of being in an air crash are 1 in 3.65 million. That is ridiculously safe.

Now when a plane I’m flying in starts shaking from a bit of turbulence, I don’t sweat it. I just wish I could say the same about crossing 6 lanes of speeding traffic on highway 401.