The daily feat of global aviation is a shining example of technology and human collaboration across multiple borders
On the move: modern air safety is a wonder in our fractured world
The skidding of a Pegasus Airlines plane off the runway at Trabzon airport in Turkey this week, resulting in the Boeing 737 ending up nose-down on the edge of the Black Sea, fortunately saw the safe escape of 162 passengers, two pilots and four crew, all thankfully unhurt.
Two weeks ago, two Jet Airways pilots were sacked after allegedly getting into an argument on a flight from London to Mumbai on New Year's Day. The female pilot, who is believed to have been captaining the flight, is said to have been slapped by her male colleague, before leaving the cockpit in tears. He then apparently also left the cockpit, leaving the flight on auto-pilot. A spokesperson for the airline told The Times of India: "A misunderstanding occurred between the cockpit crew of a Jet Airways flight. However, [it] was quickly resolved amicably and the flight with 324 guests including two infants and 14 crew continued its journey to Mumbai, landing safely.”
Such incidents keep the spotlight on an industry which depends first and foremost on safety and security for public trust, while all the time having to adapt to changes in technology, growth, congestion, staffing, infrastructure, weather patterns and evolving threats such as terrorism and the use of drones. Yet it’s reassuring to remind ourselves that when you look at the records of fatal accidents between 1946 and 2017, and compare them to flights and passenger numbers over the same period, there is an inverse relationship between the growth of scheduled flights and the number of accidents.
Yes, like any mode of transport, there are some accidents. In 2017, the aviation industry saw 44 fatalities on board aircraft and 35 on the ground. Yet this was one of the best years ever: no mean feat, considering that there are more than 100,000 scheduled flights every single day. Compare these figures to the 1.25 million road traffic deaths in 2013 (the latest figures available from the World Health Organisation).
But what is perhaps even more surprising is that this almost impeccable safety record is achieved through the consensus and co-operation of the 192 members of the UN’s civil aviation body, the ICAO.
Rather than being a global regulator, the ICAO simply defines standards which individual countries must meet or exceed. Each country has its own aviation regulator, and of course standards differ from country to country. But under the ICAO’s “No Country Left Behind” initiative, members are helped to implement ICAO standards and recommended practices as uniformly as possible, “to help insure that implementation is better harmonised globally so that all states have access to the significant socio-economic benefits of safe and reliable air transport.”
It is this culture of collaboration and oversight across multiple borders which has led to success, and the UAE, regulated since 1996 by the GCAA, is a good example of this. A relatively late entrant to the global aviation scene, there has from the start been close co-operation between the UAE and the ICAO, and in less than 35 years the country has two of the world’s largest and safest airlines.
The highly visible Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme ensures that there is a very public spotlight on the safety focus of member states, covering 8 key areas: legislation, organisation, licensing, operations, airworthiness, accident investigation, air navigation services and airports.
One of the biggest ongoing challenges, is the growing complexity of technology and the interaction between that and the people using it. The global airline industry is held together by the remarkable hard work of thousands of individuals, day in day out. For many aviation experts, it’s now not just about “no country left behind” but “no people left behind.”