Tuesday 20 March 2018

Dark thoughts can haunt us at 30,000 feet

But airline passengers are not reassured as the number of odd incidents in the sky increases, says Colum Kenny

Emergency workers at the site of the Germanwings crash
Emergency workers at the site of the Germanwings crash
Colum Kenny

Colum Kenny

The man behind me thought he was being funny. "Here's hoping that the pilots are happy," he quipped loudly last week, as we stepped on board our United Airlines flight from Florida to New Jersey. No one laughed.

A woman angrily glared at him. It has been a long bad patch for nervous flyers, and for the airline industry.

And later that night, buffeted by strong turbulence off Newfoundland, I found it hard to keep dark thoughts at bay.

It is not just the dreadful descent of Germanwings Flight 9525 into the Alps that bothers people. There has been a series of incidents of a kind that should not happen.

The International Air Transport Association says that, on average, more than eight million people fly every day. With tens of thousands of daily flights, flying is still relatively safe as well as being convenient. It is as close as we come to time travel, and your chances of being involved in a crash are slim. But some recent incidents are worrying. It all started in 2009, when Flight 447 from Rio to Paris fell out of the sky over the South Atlantic. Were the pilots REALLY at fault for the stall?

In 2014, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17 was shot down in airspace that some airlines had already zoned out because of known dangers. Suddenly, passengers everywhere were in range of rogue rockets.

Also in 2014, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disappeared into thin air en route to Beijing. Months later, an AirAsia Airbus went down in a storm off Borneo. What is going on?

Who can assuage our fears that the design of new planes has made them more fuel-efficient but ultimately less manageable in a bad storm?

Just last week, at Dublin Airport, two Ryanair planes clipped each other while taxiing. It was a minor incident, yet only last October much the same thing had happened there.

The pilot of an American aircraft on which I had arrived from Chicago that same morning in October sounded sarcastic as he told us why we were stuck out on a runway at Dublin Airport because of the first collision. To have this happen twice in six months is simply not acceptable.

The mere idea of flying in a tin can at very high speeds is fraught with much tension for many. And a range of factors, from terrorism through the high volume of traffic to profiteering by airlines and airports is exacerbating the discomfort. I caught myself unconsciously scrutinising the faces of pilots who passed me in airports last week. Might this one be capable of carrying all on board to the North Pole and ditching us in icy water? Might that one be willing to murder us on a mountain top?

Pilots are under pressure, and not just from low-cost carriers. Fierce competition is tempting airlines to cut corners. New aircraft designs or practices may be justified more readily than otherwise. Targets are set that push the pace.

When Malaysian Flight 370 disappeared, it emerged that transponders actually CAN be turned off. How, so long after 9/11, could the airline industry not have invested in foolproof ways of tracking an aircraft?

And why can a security lock on a cockpit door not be capable of release by a special code securely sent by air traffic control to a pilot or to a locking mechanism?

Even for those of us not given to conspiracy theories it is hard NOT to smell a rat in the case of Malaysian Flight 370. It is a striking coincidence that its pilot was an in-law of, and had met a number of times, a leading opposition politician sentenced to jail just hours before that fatal flight. He was also a member of his party.

That pilot is said to have earlier worn a T-shirt with a pro-democracy slogan. Was the Malaysian government involved in something here that is being covered up?

And why, so long after 9-11, do pilots not have their own toilet, or direct secure access to a passenger one? The answer is probably financial. To give them their own toilet would mean less seating space for customers, and so reduce revenue for airlines.

On a flight to Spain not long ago, I found myself seated beside a passenger who was an Irish Air Corps pilot. For no apparent reason the seat-belt sign came on. There was no turbulence. The Air Corps pilot said: "Watch now, the captain will come out of the cockpit and enter the toilet." He did so a moment later. It felt like pantomime security.

And security varies between airports. Here you take off your shoes, there not. Here it is laptops out, there not. How much is just for show?

Why insist that nobody carries a knife through security when steel cutlery is subsequently issued in-flight to business passengers to eat their fancy meals? Do terrorists only fly economy class?

Exacerbating tension for flyers are the unpleasant conditions on board. Many flights today are packed to capacity. Unless you can afford the considerably more expensive comforts of business or first class, people are jammed like sardines into cramped spaces. The air may be foul, and legroom bad for your health.

Insult is added to injury by "fast-track" check-ins for those who pay more. In democracies, why tolerate two-tier airport systems where you can jump the queue at security facilities that should treat all people equally and that, in the case of Ireland's DAA, are state-owned? For many passengers, such discrimination adds to the sense of being processed like peas in a pod.

Fear of flying is natural, even when not exacerbated by the kind of horror story from the Alps last month. For some the dread is extreme, although there are ways to lessen it. You can pay for special courses with trained pilots or take medication or do relaxation exercises and listen to calming music on your headphones.

But passengers need better service from airports and airlines too, and must insist that the industry's policies and practices are transparent.

Instead of being squeezed at every turn for revenue, with airports designed to force people through shops, and airlines using discomfort as a way of extracting payment for more leg room, passengers deserve a higher standard of safety and comfort for all.

Sunday Independent

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