European Air Safety Standards: Profits Above Safety?

Statistically speaking, air travel is remarkably safe; in fact, flying thousands of feet above the ground in a metal cylinder with wings and engines attached to it is, at least on paper, less dangerous than driving a car or travelling by train. Statistics, however, are excellent at concealing relevant pieces of information; whilst the incidence of air-related accidents is not all that high compared to road traffic accidents and train derailments, the fatality rate connected to them is unquestionably high.

According to the Aircraft Crashes Record Office (ACRO), which is based in Geneva and compiles incidents of accidents affecting aircraft capable of carrying more than six passengers (excluding military planes, balloons and helicopters), there were 122 accidents in 2009, resulting in 1,103 fatalities. During the 10-year period between 1999 and 2009, a total of 1932 crashes claimed the lives of 13,379 people. Of course, more people die in road traffic accidents on British roads each year than they do in the skies throughout the world. However, whilst 2,538 motorists and pedestrians were killed on British roads in 2008, there were 230,905 reported casualties – almost 1,900 times the number of aircraft accidents in 2009, which claimed almost half as many fatalities.

Nevertheless, the number of accident claims made following aircraft accidents remains extremely low; however, fears are mounting that air safety standards in Europe are being lowered in order to maximise profits. According to the European Cockpit Association (ECA), which represents some 39,000 professional flight crew members from all over Europe, the recent decision to reopen skies across Northern Europe following the Icelandic volcano eruption may have been driven by commercial interests.

As the plume of volcanic ash continues to stretch over Europe, the ECA fears that the issue of safety was given scant regard by those lobbying to reopen the skies. Volcanic ash is known to cause failure in jet engines, which is why planes have been grounded in the UK for the last week. The ECA said: “Operational decisions should be based on the strong safety culture developed over many decades in our industry, whereas financial problems should be addressed with financial solutions – never should the two be mixed”.

It is estimated that the global airline industry has lost around £1.1 billion as a result of the volcanic ash crisis. Although the ECA contends that “operational decisions require a ‘safety first’ approach”, it is not unthinkable that airlines would accept some degree of risk in order to restore revenue streams. If the decision to reopen European skies proves premature, however, the accident claims that would be made in the event of catastrophic incidents occurring would further hit the airline industry’s bottom line.

As airline safety comes into sharp focus during these exceptional times, the UK pilots’ union, BALPA, is concerned that plans by the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) to set the standards for Flight Time Limitations may actually decrease safety standards in the UK. General Secretary of BALPA, Jim McAuslan, said: “It looks at present that EASA wants to jettison the high standards of the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, which are based on science… at a time when 15 to 20 per cent of all fatal air accidents have pilot fatigue as a key contributing factor. Parliamentary candidates of all parties need to work with us to protect their constituents’ safety”.

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