I like to write about flying and aviation. I spent most of my working life ‘at it’ and can shine a little light on some of the mysteries for the air traveller. I have no regrets about squandering my life as a pilot and have always been proud to be involved with a glamorous and very safe form of public transportation.

A culture of safety is engrained in the airline industry worldwide. Pilots, managers and regulators like to dream about it every night. The global body that sets the standard is the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Many airlines operate under its banner and have to constantly demonstrate their continued safe operation in numerous areas if they want to keep wearing the ‘badge’. The accident rate for member airlines is about one third of the rate of non members. You will know if your carrier is a member because it will say so on the ticket. Checking that before you buy is very sound advice.

A very powerful component in the flying safety stakes is the age of the aircraft that you will be travelling in. A modern airliner is built to meet a certain life expectancy rather like a washing machine. A new aircraft from the factory will be dependable for about 25 years of continuous use. After that, the maintenance and engineering costs increase beyond the normal rate and it becomes increasingly expensive to maintain reliable and safe services. The quality of engineering, design and component dependability on a modern aircraft is about as perfect as anything could be. A new aircraft costs a lot of money. A new Boeing 747 Jumbo jet is about one hundred million pounds and the even larger Airbus A380 about one hundred and twenty million pounds. IATA member airlines operate youthful aircraft fleets and their business models operate to extract decent commercial profits from these costs. In many serious flying accidents, it is often older aircraft from earlier design principals that are involved.

york_coffeyPilot and crew continuation training and assessment standards are a principal function of achieving very high levels of safety for the passenger. Flight crew members are continually being examined in their capacity to demonstrate the company normal and emergency drills. Pilots get two demanding and quite stressful simulator checks each year. The assessments can be failed and pilots can be withdrawn from service. There is also a real time, routine route examination each year to ensure that company operating standards are being maintained. There is also, of course, the regular medical examination always just around the corner for all. Doctors are impartial and a suspect monitored heart trace means a pilot has lost his job, instantly.

All airlines have their detailed and approved drills for crews to use in all circumstances to suit the aircraft type that they fly. Such actions have to be demonstrated exactly in each six monthly simulator check. These days, flying experience is held so much more by the company itself rather than by individual pilots. This experience is passed on in the simulator and in company operations manuals and has taken the ‘seat of the pants’ element out of flying. Flight crews are taught to listen to advice from their fellows when things go wrong before any action is taken. Many modern industries and other work places are slowly catching up with the airline industry in this way. The days of the crusty, intimidating captain working by himself have long gone. Modern airline flying is conducted by a crew and each member has much to offer.

A major source of anxiety for the air traveller can often be flight through bumpy air. Some people think that the wings might fall off. Forces in the atmosphere are clearly understood by aircraft designers. An aircraft will be constructed to withstand stresses much greater than the air can ever create. The designer has to travel as a passenger as well. You cannot see the air but it is dense and real and is just as supportive as the sea. Modern radar equipment installed in aircraft allows the pilots to ‘see’ areas of bumpy weather and fly around them to ensure conditions are more comfortable. You may observe the lightning flashing away outside but your aircraft will be flying around it and you can keep enjoying your gin and tonic.

Modern air traffic control units have a very important role to play in ensuring safe air travel as well. When things occasionally go wrong with an aircraft in flight an emergency call to the ground will launch an instant and extraordinary support operation. Instant navigational assistance to the nearest suitable airport and related weather information is provided. Other aircraft that may conflict with the distressed aircraft are moved out of the way and ground emergency services are put on alert. Should things ever go amiss in flight, the air traffic controller becomes the pilot’s best friend. A distressed aircraft in flight takes a full priority and air controllers take great pride in their function during these events. The multiple airports that abound in Europe and North America mean that a safe diversion is literally only minutes away.

Low budget airlines in Europe suffer from a difficult impression held by the traveller. They always seem to present the hidden charges, scurrilous extras and the clamour for the seats at the start of the flight. Low budget airlines are extremely aware of their operational reputation. They know that they have to operate beyond reproach to avoid the wrath of the tabloid newspapers. These companies work to the most modern business models and operate very youthful aircraft fleets. They have extremely dependable and safe flying practices and are subject to the same regulation as any other airline. They are governed and controlled by aviation professionals with long experience of the industry. They provide very affordable and safe air travel and make good profits. They provide superb value for money as long as you don’t mind the carriage class travel for a couple of hours or so.

Air travel is quite safe and fun and links the world. What would we do without it? Be sure to listen to the cabin crew at the beginning of the flight when they give the safety demonstration and about what to do should things go wrong. They may not have time to tell you again and remember that they also take great pride in their jobs as aircraft crew members. Cabin crew are subject to continuation training and review just as the flight crew are. Take some care with who you buy a ticket with but do not forget about the huge wing of safety culture that you will be flying under.

About Bob Lyons

Former airline pilot and now enjoying a new career as a writer. I have worked and travelled extensively in Europe and especially France. I love the continent, the people and my new life writing about them.