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25 July 2013

Key safety and technology trends affecting airline passengers

The last few weeks has seen the world media pay a tremendous amount of attention airline safety issues, especially in the wake of the fatal crash landing of Asiana flight 214 in San Francisco on 6 July 2013 and the landing incident on 22 July 2013 involving a Southwest Airlines 737 in New York. These two events have actually highlighted several of the key safety trends in aviation that will likely affect passengers not only in the US, but around the world.

How the crash of an Asiana 777 demonstrated improvements in aircraft
This accident represented not only the first fatal accident involving the 777, but the first fatal accident involving a large jet airliner in the US in almost 12 years. Perhaps more significant was that an accident that resulted in significant damage to the aircraft and a post-crash fire resulted in only three fatalities.

777 accident in San Francisco

While luck plays a part in any fatal accident with survivors, perhaps a more significant role was played by improvements in aircraft design and crew procedures that have occurred over the last few decades, including the following:

  • Aircraft designs that minimize the risk of rupturing fuel tanks when landing gear are sheared away,
  • Cabin materials that are designed to be both more fire resistant and less prone to give off dangerous fumes if they do catch fire,
  • Passenger seats that are designed to withstand greater crash forces,
  • Crew training that emphasizes coordination of cabin crew and flight crew actions during emergencies, and
  • Stricter requirements for passenger evacuation to allow the evacuation of a full aircraft in 90 seconds or less, even if half of the exits are not useable.

How safe is flying?
Since the beginning of large scale airline operations, and especially in the last 30 years, the risks of flying, specifically the risk of a fatal event that kills passengers, has steadily decreased, and the likelihood of survival increasing, in part through innovations in technology and procedures. These improvements are happening because of deliberate efforts by the aviation community and the governments that regulate aviation to identify risks and find ways to eliminate them, make them less likely to occur, or lessen the effects of unwanted outcomes like plane crashes.

Working on the important risks
Aircraft manufacturers, international aviation organizations, and government regulators regularly share information on where the major problems are and what steps have to be taken to address them. The two recent accidents in the US, both of which are being investigated by the NTSB, will be part of this sharing process. They were both landing related accidents, which happens to be a area of high interest among airline manufacturers, airlines, and regulatory authorities.

The findings of the investigation, as well as any recommended changes to technology or procedures, will be provided not only to the organizations involved in the accidents, but to the general public, and will likely contribute to future changes to airline industry, changes that will make these kinds of accidents less likely.

How technology puts power in the hands of the people
The recent accidents in San Francisco and New York were also examples of how technology in the hands of passengers and the public has radically changed the relationship the public has with the airlines. In both cases, news of the accidents, including photos and videos, went out not only through traditional news media, but also through Twitter, YouTube, Vine, and other social media applications. In the case of the crash in San Francisco, the NTSB used Twitter and YouTube to put photos, press conferences, and other information from the investigation online, allowing any interested person to get the information direct from the source, without waiting for traditional media to filter the content.

737 landing accident at LaGuardia

Other key technology trends
The growth in the availability of affordable and portable online access continues to be a reality in virtually all areas of the globe. While it is impossible to say where that technology is going, it is clear that there are several areas where this technology has made a huge difference to airline passengers compared to ten or even five years ago:

  • Allow for easy ticket price comparisons and ticket purchases online,
  • Provide personalized in-flight entertainment,
  • Provide passengers with the means to document accidents, incidents, and poor airline customer service, and to share it with the world, and
  • Allow passengers to access a full range of information about an airline 24 hours a day.

Perhaps the greatest change for passengers is that the existence of the Internet makes the entire aviation system much more transparent to everyone. When accidents occur, the news flashes around the world in seconds. It has become very difficult for an airline, aircraft manufacturer, or government agency to hide the truth about their activities from the public, either because someone publishes a photo or other information that reveals the truth, or because information such as accident and incident data that used to be very difficult for the public to find is now much easier to find.

This last point may not be important to airline passengers who live in countries with a free and open press where critical reporting on the activities of governments and corporations in the norm. In many parts of the world, especially countries where there has been a rapid increase in the standard of living and much greater access to air travel services, having the ability to find information from sources that are not controlled by their government, especially information about airlines that are often partly or completely controlled by their government, would be next to impossible without access to the Internet.

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