The Big Question: Why has another Airbus crashed, and is flying becoming more risky?

Author: By Archie Bland

Why are we asking this now?

A little over a month after an Airbus 447 crashed into the sea off the coast
of Brazil, killing all 228 people on board, another of the manufacturer’s
aircraft has been involved in a disaster. This time, there were 153 people
on the A310 in question, a Yemenia Air flight which dove into the sea as it
tried to land on the Comoros islands, an archipelago of volcanic islands off
the south-east coat of Africa in the Indian Ocean. The plane was heading
from Yemen to the Comoros, but many on board had begun their journey in
France.

So what exactly happened?

So far, we don’t know much. While at least three bodies have been recovered
and a 14-year-old girl, Bahia Bariki, has survived, the rest of the
passengers are unaccounted for. The circumstances of the crash will become
clearer once investigators find the plane’s black box, but initially they
have pointed to atrocious weather and the late-night landing time as
possible contributing factors. More worryingly, the condition of the
aircraft itself has been called into question. The families of many of those
on the flight, who were Comorans returning to the French overseas territory
from holiday from France, have bitterly blamed the state of the Yemenia Air
fleet. “They put us aboard wrecks, they put us aboard coffins, that’s
where they put us,” one relative told French television. “It’s
slaughter. It’s slaughter.” The Comoros’ honorary consul in Marseille,
Stephane Salord, called the Yemenia aircraft “flying cattle trucks”.
“This A310 is a plane that has posed problems for a long time,” he
said. “It is absolutely inadmissible that this airline, Yemenia, played
with the lives of its passengers this way.”

The French Transport minister, Dominique Bussereau, told parliament yesterday
that the Yemenia Airbus 310 which crashed was not permitted to fly into
France, and raised concerns about the transfer of passengers from a plane
classed as safe to one that crashed into the sea. Most had flown on a
different Yemenia aircraft from Paris or Marseille before boarding flight
IY626 in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen.

So is it likely that the plane itself is to blame?

Yemenia’s fleet has certainly come in for considerable criticism in the past.
Most damningly, French inspectors who looked at the plane at Charles de
Gaulle airport in Paris in 2007 noticed a number of faults. The aircraft was
banned from flying in French airspace and, under the EC’s safety directives,
they instructed Yemenia to carry out stricter checks on the place in future.
But Yemen’s Transport minister, Khaled Ibrahim al-Wazeer, insisted it had
since been rigorously checked under the supervision of Airbus experts.

Why was the plane still allowed to fly if French officials had flagged it up?

For one thing, even though the EU was due to investigate Yemenia’s safety
record following the 2007 inspection, the airline was not added to the “blacklist”
of airlines banned within the EU. Even if it had been, there would have been
nothing to prevent the flight from Yemen to the Comoros; that would be the
responsibility of the Yemeni and Comoran governments.

Is there another viable explanation besides a technical failure?

David Learmount, safety editor at Flight International magazine, thinks human
error is most likely the cause of the crash, pointing out that a tired pilot
would have been coming in at 1.30am into a strong wind. The polit would have
had to make a “non- precision” approach without radar, using his
eyes rather than instruments ? a method which is three to five times more
likely to result in an accident. If it was indeed such an incident, Mr
Learmount says it is hard to avoid, adding: “Accidents like this
happen. They always have.”

Is this crash anything to do with the recent Air France disaster?

It seems not. That aircraft, an A330, was a different model entirely. Whereas
yesterday’s crash happened on the final descent to the airport, Flight AF447
went down in ordinary flight, making it more likely to have been a technical
failure than a human error. But two crashes so close together are a public
relations disaster for Airbus. The share price of its parent company, EADS,
fell by 3.6 per cent yesterday.

What does Airbus do after selling an aeroplane to ensure its safety?

Once an aircraft is sold, a manufacturer is no longer responsible for its
safety. They do sometimes work for airlines in an safety advisory role, but
they do not offer maintenance services. Legally, the responsibility lies
with the operator.

So should I worry about flying by A310 in future?

You should certainly think carefully about travelling with Yemenia. The EU
transport commissioner Antonio Tajani has announced a new investigation into
the airline’s practices, and that may well result in the company being added
to the next airline blacklist, which is published in two weeks. Other
airlines flying the same model are as trustworthy as ever. Nevertheless,
those of a nervous disposition may think twice on any carrier. The A310 is
an older model designed in 1986 ? the one that crashed yesterday was built
in 1990 ? and older aircraft are statistically more likely to crash than
newer ones. The A310 has also been in more accidents than its main
competitor, the Boeing 767.

And what about flying on an Airbus in general?

Airlines would not buy Airbus jets if they had serious doubts about their
safety record, which is respectable and comparable to its rival, Boeing.
Some pilots have expressed reservations about the Airbus “Fly-By-Wire”
approach, which automates more processes than Boeing’s system does ? but
Airbus firmly believes its method is safer and eliminates opportunities for
pilot error. There may have been a string of recent Airbus accidents ? last
year, the Fly-By-Wire system led to a Qantas A330 plunging 650ft in seconds
? but it is probably only a matter of bad luck. “That’s the throw
of the dice,” says Mr Learmount. “There are only two major
aircraft manufacturers in the world. Any crash is bound to be one or the
other.”

What can be done to improve air safety?

One practical step already proposed by Mr Tajani is to extend the EU blacklist
system to a global version. That would not have stopped this crash but it
might give travellers peace of mind to know that dozens of airlines banned
in Europe will not be operating elsewhere either. It would also ensure that,
if Yemenia was added to that group, it could not continue to operate
regardless.

Should I continue to fly in the meantime?

Flying disasters are often horrifying, and the concentration of deaths in a
single incident can make air travel seem uniquely risky. In fact, while it
is never risk-free, it is certainly not the most dangerous way to travel. In
the US in 2006, for instance, there 42,642 deaths were caused by car
accidents and only 1,500 involved aircraft. While there are 117 fatalities
per billion air journeys, there are 170 deaths per billion bicycle journeys.
So, unless you are also planning to travel on only foot in future, your
routine should probably not change.

Are there good reasons for concern about travelling on an Airbus?

Yes…

* Airbus aircraft have been involved in a string of accidents, and no firm
explanation has yet been found for the crash of Air France AF447

* Some pilots worry about relying on the company’s automated “Fly-By-Wire”
navigation system

* No manufacturer or airline can entirely legislate for human error

No…

* There is no reason to think the the two recent disasters are linked; they
involved different models of Airbus in different circumstances

* With only two plane-makers, accidents are bound to be with one or the other

* The risks of flying are no worse than those of many other activities

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