Is It Safe To Fly?

Aviation remains the safest means of transportation, experts say.

Recent crashes evoke fear over airline safety in the Middle East. 

By Leila Hatoum

The recent crash and burn of Emirates Airlines Flight EK521 on August 3 was the fourth flight-related incident in the Middle East this year. None of the 282 passengers and 18-crew members of EK521 were harmed, thanks to the quick reaction of the crew—who helped evacuate the passengers right before the fire consumed it—according to the carrier’s chief, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum. Yet, many in the region wonder how safe is it really to fly if one of the world’s top airlines can suffer such an ill fate without any prior warning signs.

After all, not all airlines that were involved in crashes in the past have been fortunate enough to save their passengers. Indeed, EK521 was much luckier than, for example, EgyptAir Flight MS804 that got lost in the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean on May 19, taking with it the lives of 66 persons and along with them, the story of what actually caused the crash.

It remains unclear what happened to EK521 either, as the cause of the accident remains unknown amid ongoing investigations. A Dubai Airports’ official told Newsweek Middle East several hours after the crash that “there was a problem with the engine,” while circulating rumors pointed to a possible fault with the aircraft’s landing gear.

It isn’t EgyptAir’s tragedy or the Emirates flight crash alone that raised the doubts. Nearly 700 major flight-related accidents have occurred over the past 46 years, as well as thousands of small-scale incidents that have caused the death of tens of thousands of people. These are also a cause of concern, especially when the incident is due to a fault with the engine or other parts of the jet.

However, safety experts, civil aviation organizations, as well as carriers are quick to shun the fears, noting that the average worldwide deaths caused by airline incidents remains a fraction of what the numbers would be in the case of car-related accidents on a global scale, for instance.

On average, the airline industry operates some 100,000 flights a day safely and securely, and a tiny fraction of flights may experience a technical problem, a medical emergency or other event and may be required to divert to an alternate airport or return to base, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

“Aviation remains the safest means of transportation compared with other resources. How many deaths do you get from car accidents in the Arab region, the Middle East and even the world per year? Looking at the numbers, Aviation remains the safest one,” says Mohammad Al Hout, CEO & General Manager of Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines (MEA) Group.

According to the 2015 IATA Safety Report, the global jet accident rate (measured in hull losses per 1 million flights) was 0.32.

This is the “equivalent of one major accident for every 3.1 million flights (a hull loss is an accident in which the aircraft is destroyed or substantially damaged and is not subsequently repaired for whatever reason),” Rudy Quevedo, Director of safety at IATA, tells Newsweek Middle East.

This, according to IATA, constitutes a 30 percent improvement compared with the previous five-year rate of 0.46 hull losses per million jet flights.

Quevedo also points out the fact that the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region had zero hull loss accidents in 2015, which was an improvement over the five year rate of 1 hull loss per 1 million flights.

“This compares with an average of 17.6 fatal accidents and 504 fatalities per year in the previous five-year period (2010-2014),” says Quevedo.

Globally, there were four accidents resulting in 136 fatalities in 2015, all of which involved turboprop aircraft, and none of the fatal accidents in 2015 involved Middle Eastern airlines, according to IATA. But the statistics do not include deliberate acts of “unlawful interference,” be it suicide or terrorism, which automatically excludes incidents such as that of Russia’s Metrojet Flight 9268 on October 31, 2015, which crashed over Sinai, Egypt due to a suspected terrorist attack.

In fact, security-related flight incidents play a major role in changing flight regulations and security measures. The Dawson Field Hijackings of El Al Flight 219, Pan Am, Flight 93, Swissair Flight 100, TWA Flight 741 and BOAC Flight 775 between September 6 and September 9, 1970 by militants from the Popular Front for Liberating Palestine instigated the eventual widespread implementation of air passenger screening.

But perhaps the most famous security-breach in modern history of civil aviation remains the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center’s twin towers and the Pentagon in the U.S. using hijacked American Airlines Flights 11 and 77, and United Airlines Flights 175 and 93, which led to the death of hundreds including all passengers on board.

Meanwhile, it remains the responsibility of each country’s national air safety regulator to ensure that their laws and regulations regarding aviation safety are aligned with the standards and recommended practices of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

“We take good care of our fleet, which is subject to periodic maintenance and in accordance with ICAO’s requirements,” says Hout in a telephone interview with Newsweek Middle East from Beirut.

Though many also point to the fact that older airplanes are more prone to technical failure when flying, this isn’t necessarily true.

To read the full story, grab the latest issue of Newsweek Middle East. 

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