World News

07.19.14

Twin Disasters Turn 2014 Into the Year of Flying Dangerously

A missile attack over Ukraine and a ghostly disappearance over the Indian Ocean have cast a pall over the whole experience of airline travel.

Was there ever such a luckless airline as Malaysian Airlines? As a human tragedy, the double blow can barely be measured in its horror. As a statistic, it’s unparalleled in aviation history: nearly 600 people lost on one airline in less than five months. And for the airline industry the two disasters, one still inexplicable and the other brutally terminal, cast a pall over the whole experience of flying.

Right now one has to cast aside all the reservations about how the airline and Malaysian officials handled the disappearance of Flight 370. The sheer improbability of the dice rolling against the airline again in the form of a missile strike over Ukraine just heightens the agony.

Of all the airplanes in the sky over Europe that morning, Malaysia Flight 17 happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If another airliner from another nation had been in the crosshairs of whoever controlled that missile battery the result would have been equally appalling, but there it is, lying in a Ukrainian meadow, that familiar Malaysian decal on a shattered tailfin.

For more than decade, flying has been made irksome rather than pleasurable by an ever-increasing fortress culture at airports. Huge new bureaucracies have appeared to compel us to remove shoes, have our bodies scanned, display our creams and liquids for inspection. Even the most seasoned and stoic of travelers see flying as a punishing necessity rather than the astonishing utility that it really is.

This year that tremulous feeling of going to the airport became different. The fear was no longer merely of wondering where among all the defenses from check-in to boarding there might be a careless lack of vigilance or an unsuspected weakness in the armor of detection and apprehension of terrorists. Something new was spooking us, Malaysian Flight 370. How in this age can an airplane carrying 239 mortals simply vanish and leave no trace—absolutely no trace, not a fragment anywhere, not the faintest of mayday messages?

The airline industry has failed to give an adequate answer to that. We thought the world was covered by an intricate web of surveillance and it would be impossible for something the size of a Boeing 777 to take its absence and fly for seven hours until, out of fuel, it dived into the ocean. Then we found that the means to prevent this – a constant stream of tracking data from the airplane sent to satellites – existed but the will to pay the price of adopting it did not.

And now this eerie and yet tantalizing mystery is compounded by the effects of a very different fate executed in plain sight by violent means.

Strange, too, that not just the same airline but the same airplane should be involved. Since it first flew on airline service in 1995 the Boeing 777 had never lost a passenger until last August, when Asiana Flight 214 crashed while landing at San Francisco, killing three people. The subsequent investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the pilots had become confused and mishandled the landing. The 777 has had an exceptional safety record – of more than 1,180 so far delivered to airlines, only 11 are no longer flying, for a variety of technical reasons.

As a statistic, it’s unparalleled in aviation history: nearly 600 people lost on one airline in less than five months.

As the astounding story of a second Malaysia Airlines disaster broke, the aviation industry was celebrating what promised to be a new golden age of air travel. The Farnborough Air Show in England is the world’s hottest marketplace for airliners. At Farnborough this week the duopoly of Boeing and Airbus announced hundreds of new orders for a new generation airplanes like the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, as well as a first wave of orders for upgrades of two long-established airliners, the Airbus A330 – and the Boeing 777.

Why are the airlines so excited about these new airplanes that they can’t wait to get them into their fleets? The answer lies in one striking advance: they will guzzle far less gas. The three major world manufacturers of jet engines, General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, and Rolls Royce, have invested billions of dollars over the last decade to produce a new class of engine with three great virtues: they are as much as 25 percent more fuel efficient than the previous generation; they are far cleaner in terms of emissions, and they are far quieter.

There has been a lot of buzz at Farnborough about the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. After a very long delay before it was fit to be delivered to airlines, and then two battery fires that grounded the whole fleet, the Dreamliner seems finally to be living up to its promise. Airlines flying the 787 are reporting that it is using 22 percent less fuel than its predecessor, the 767, on equivalent routes.

At a time of unstable and high gas prices, intense ticket price competition and extremely narrow airline profit margins (the average profit is a meager 2.4 per cent), savings of this order are almost more than the airline bean-counters dared to hope for. Farnborough was a place to celebrate and savor a more profitable (and planet-friendly) future. That was all until that missile found its target 32,000 feet over Ukraine.

Of course it is necessary to say – and I have said it before – that the psychological impact of airline disasters is out of all proportion to the number of actual casualties. This year will appear to be an exceptionally bad one for the statistics, severely reversing a trend. In 2013 just 173 people died, worldwide, in commercial air crashes. That was down from 388 in 2012.

Despite this year’s 600 dead, the growth of global air travel will be unstoppable. It is increasing at an average rate of between 5 and 6 percent per year. In some regions of the world it is much higher. Airports are struggling to keep up. Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi international airport, for example, designed to handle 45 million passengers a year, will have to handle 60 million by 2017. Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur airport has the fastest growth in Asia, up more than 9 percent per year.

And then there is the simplest of all comparisons in measuring the real as opposed to perceived danger: Contrast those 173 deaths on airlines last year with the global total of people dying in road accidents in the same year: 1.3 million.

None of this makes the pain go away. None of it lessens the outrage at the absolutely needless slaughter of the 298 people aboard Malaysia Flight 17. And certainly none of it alters the reality of an airport experience that has become the most discomforting threshold in the course of our travels. And yet…to a reincarnated visitor from the 19th century, in terms of its everyday safety and regularity, flying would appear truly miraculous. In the 21st century, however, we suppress the magic of it and succumb to the fear of it.