Air Niugini is safer than United Airlines?

November 9, 2018

 According to Patrick Smith’s 2013 Cockpit Confidential, and numerous Google search results from last week, prior to Sept. 28, 2018 Air Nuigini had never encountered a fatality. In one accident alone, 111 people lost their lives on a United flight.

 

Therefore, Air Niugini is safer than United Airlines.

 

Or maybe it’s not; the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration does not trust it to enter U.S. airspace, after all.

 

Defining “safety” for an airline is a tricky thing. We all know that statistically flying is the safest mode of transit. We also know that there are statistical outliers. A professor I once had, on distributing exam scores, quipped that the average grade was 82, but that’s not much consolation if your score was below the average.

 

“It’s like drowning in a river whose average depth is 3 inches. If you fall in the section that’s 20 feet deep, the average is not very helpful,” was his explanation.

 

Which is safer, an airline with thousands of daily flights that hasn’t had a fatal accident in a decade but in its past has, among other things, operated a jet whose engine exploded, resulting in deaths numbering in the triple digits, or a small Pacific carrier that had an accident on landing on a remote island that caused the first fatality in its history?

The investigation into the accident in Chuuk is ongoing, and will likely take some time, but most disasters result from a bunch of little things, one after another, rather than a single factor. Rest assured, there is now a Wikipedia entry for ANG73, complete with an operational history of the aircraft.

The United crash in question was flight 232, a DC-10 triple engine jet flying from Denver to Chicago. Ultimately, investigators determined that a fan blade in the center engine cracked, which in turn caused the engine to explode, severing every hydraulic line and eliminating the flight crew’s ability to control the aircraft. Charlton Heston starred in the film adaptation of it. (It’s named A Thousand Heroes,  or Crash Landing: the Rescue of Flight 232. There appears to be some confusion. I watched it, and several other films on air disasters as a restless teenager. I invited friends over to watch the collection, and oddly never heard from them again).

 

 I cite United solely for its obvious role as the dominant carrier in the region, but there are other examples, such as the literal poster boy of aviation who, one foggy day on the island of Tenerife in 1977 caused history’s greatest aviation accident when he thrust the KLM 747 he was controlling directly into a Pan Am plane of the same type.

 

The investigation into the accident in Chuuk is ongoing, and will likely take some time, but most disasters result from a bunch of little things, one after another, rather than a single factor. Rest assured, there is now a Wikipedia entry for ANG73, complete with an operational history of the aircraft.

 

Several years ago, Boeing, for its part, commissioned an historical study on aviation safety and the prevalence of plane crashes. Don’t worry, I only skimmed it, but the general trend is that air safety is improving. Certain averages remain consistent; airlines from wealthier countries by and large are safer, but numerous airlines from less wealthy nations have impeccable records. Significantly, large well-established airlines have higher safety ratings, much higher than say, fly-by-night (literally) cargo outfits, due in no small part to higher budgets for aircraft maintenance, more experienced pilots, and more oversight. I was once friends with a pilot, getting ready for his airline interviews, who remarked, “if I wanted just any job I could have one tomorrow. Whether they maintain their planes and I’d still be alive next month is another question.”

 

  The United States has gone years without a fatal accident from a major carrier. The key word being major, as opposed to regional carrier. Regional carriers operate shorter, “commuter” type flights (although, as anyone who has flown domestically in the U.S. in the past decade can attest, the definition of short keeps getting longer.) These are independent airlines, regardless of what is painted on the side of the plane. They hire and train their own crews and operate under their own protocols. The safety issues — and staffing problems — with the regionals have been well documented. At the same time, the regionals operate the majority of all passenger flights in the U.S. It’s a similar comparison throughout the world.

 

Commercial planes have multiple backup systems, flight routes are carefully planned, airports are certified for operation based on runway length, lighting systems and the like. Not just anyone can sit at the controls, even at the regionals.

 

The simple fact of the matter is that no activity can ever be completely safe. Accidents inevitably happen. People are human. Bad weather strikes. The world’s airlines, aircraft manufacturers and regulators deserve credit for learning from tragedy. The precise combination of factors that caused that 737 to hit the waters of Chuuk Lagoon is not yet known.

 

It’s not often that the people of Chuuk receive credit, let alone applause. I for one was not surprised that a spontaneous flotilla prevented what could have been Micronesia’s greatest tragedy, and join the ranks of those who applauded.

 

 

 

 

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Gabriel currently lives in Chuuk, Micronesia, where he works for a regional NGO. He likes to write about the world disorder, and If he ever gets enough bandwidth, his blog, the sunburnchronicles, will be fully functioning. Send feedback to gabrieljmccoard@hotmail.com.

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