Air safety, first and last

Travel by air is considered to be the safest and the fastest.  That is why it is expensive and beyond the reach of many.  It may still be the fastest but, with increasing number of disasters in the sky, there is a growing concern.

Every time news of an air crash appears, people have second thoughts on safety, even if it is momentary.  The aviation industry has been hit with several disasters in the recent past.  In 2014 alone, there were six major air crashes involving commercial airlines.  1,090 people were killed and some are still missing.

Just as we are recovering from the shocking Air Asia accident that crashed into the Java sea killing all 162 on board in December, the Germanwings plane crash that killed all 150 onboard came as a stark reminder of air travel safety.  It is the eighth commercial airline disaster since the mysterious disappearance of MH370 last March.

Experts, who study plane crashes, say that, despite the huge number of deaths, people shouldn’t be scared to fly, and that most of the recent crashes were fluke incidents, and the frequency of accidents and deaths is actually declining.

There may be truth in that but it is not at all consoling, as the aviation industry is growing and the volume of people flying increase with air travel becoming cheaper, forced by competition.  The so-called budget airlines have already become popular, enabling more people to fly and for more airplanes to crowd the skies.

Even at home, we are seeing more and more Bhutanese fly, as incomes increase and competition brings down the cost of travel.  The average Bhutanese traveller has changed.  It was once the privileged civil servants and some businessmen.  Today, even an average family can afford to fly once a year on unofficial tours.

Globally, every air disaster brings safety to the forefront.  A lot of expert investigations are done and airline executives and companies are informed about risks and the need for improved coordination.  The recent disasters should also serve as a wake up call for our airlines too.

We have a good safety record and, in fact, foreigners wonder, in awe, how our planes are manoeuvred safely to the little airport in Paro.  We are also reputed to have one of the scariest airports in the world.  Air traffic has increased, while Paro airport has become congested.

Fortunately, we have not recorded a single accident in Bhutan that has claimed lives so far.  But it has occurred outside our borders.  A crash in Nepal tragically claimed the lives of 18 Bhutanese, and we had a near miss some time ago when a military plane flew very close to a Drukair aircraft over Dhaka.

Our airlines must remain vigilant and maintain our excellent safety record, and continue not to let commercial profit take precedence.

It was a welcome move by the government to grant oversight authorities the money, no matter how high, they need to hire critical safety officers, even if the move came only after 17 long years of repeated requests by the agency.

But more needs to be done.  Aviation safety is something we cannot compromise on.

We have to keep up with the growth in the aviation industry.  Paro airport is already considered a highly challenging area for pilots.  The congestion at the airport needs to be addressed, for one.

It is also worth noting that our airlines are the only ones that allow passengers in the cockpit when in mid air.  Is that wise?  We cannot with certainty say it is or not, despite our small close-knit society, but we should abide with international aviation rules that disallow this.

2 replies
  1. irfan
    irfan says:

    Air transport, being safe and fast, has changed the way we have preferred to travel across borders. With no roads or rails ahead and only endless water to sail through, air transport has become the preferred mode of transport for many. In early years, the safety concerns are more about mechanical failures or manual handling errors. The sky is a lot safer now with continuous developments even though the sky is indeed getting a bit crowded.

    The economics of air transport is probably a bit different than traveling by roads, rails or sea. The planes are getting bigger carrying more passengers per trip over long distances and operators are always increasing the fleet size to carry more passengers. But still, there are hardly any operators making reasonable profits from operations only. On the other side, the airports are in better position to make profits in the long run. Many countries have seen privatization of airports and its operations. The evolution in designs that air carriers has gone through in so many decades has also played a dominant role in airport development in terms of its size and requirements to fit that size. Reduced cost per passenger per trip is still not bringing guaranteed profit to the operators optimizing per trip capacities.

    I am hopeful that the future of aviation industry in Bhutan will see the perfect balance among airport capacities, choice of carriers, the right operation network and correct fleet size so that the country can continue to maintain its safety records.

    [The other comment is meant for the ‘costly prank calls’ post on 26th March. It seems it got misplaced during moderation.]

  2. irfan
    irfan says:

    Just like same business models don’t work in all socio-economic environments, same methods of service delivery are not effective everywhere. In a small population, a number of 200000 calls attended in a year by a health care helpline are awesome; but not when they all are prank calls. One may read the numbers as a need to ensure limited and genuine calls demanding the service or one can also say that we need more employees attending the calls to ensure better service to the public. Both the situations don’t ensure the quality in desired health services. With the health services offered for free, making the calls paid will reduce the numbers of prank calls. Even catching the pranksters and charging them with criminal charges will not eliminate all the wrong numbers. But we may end up needing a whole new department to deal with such pranksters. We can even have people get their phone numbers registered with details by paying a nominal annual charge or there can be prepaid mobile applications installed. And still, a prankster remains what he is unless he changes his mind for the good reasons. But the question is whether we have all the health facilities in place to respond a genuine emergency call in quick time! Otherwise it will be impossible even to deliver a pizza at the right address all the time, forget the prank orders here.

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