Flying in the Face of Reality
Terry Braverman and Company

Flying in the Face of Reality

Quote of the Week: “You know they invented wheelbarrows to teach FAA inspectors to walk on their hind legs.” — Marty Caidin

The Global Business Travel Association just concluded their annual convention in L.A. Two topics were high on the agenda: the surge in international business travel and the complex safety and security issues that have arisen as companies dispatch more employees to various locations around the globe.

 

This year’s GBTA convention, which drew over 6,700 travel managers, suppliers and others in the industry, followed a rocky series of events for travel. The trade group said that spending on business travel would rise about 7 percent this year, to roughly $1.18 trillion — $292.3 billion of that in the United States, up 3 percent. But as industry professionals energized themselves for five days of meetings, exhibitions and after-hours parties, there was a much sober discussion about travel safety and risk management.

 

GBTA Executive Director and COO Michael W. McCormick issued the following statement about the threat of terrorism in the skies: “The recent attack of the Malaysian airline exposed a significant safety concern on how information regarding potentially dangerous routes is applied. Corporations send business travelers to every part of the world. Duty of care and risk management is a vital component of today’s business travel. Companies and individual travelers have assumed airlines fly in safe skies, but now must start evaluating flight-path risk as part of their own duty of care responsibilities. Industry leaders need to step forward and work closely with government intelligence organizations in this dynamically changing environment. Traditional approaches to risk mitigation must be re-evaluated.”

 

It is obvious that flying over war zones should be avoided, whatever the cost in time and money may be. And why not incentivize peace by banning flights from landing in places where armed conflict is raging?   

 

“I’ve been at this 28 years — military, U.S. government, different response companies — and this is the greatest concentration of threat that I’ve ever seen, because of the frequency and severity of these incidents, but also because companies and institutions are global now,” said John M. Rose, chief operating officer of iJet, a travel risk management company.

 

Of course, one would expect such melodramatics from a travel risk management executive. Clearly, the last two weeks have been glum for the airline industry and the flying public in particular, with the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines flight followed by separate crashes in Taiwan and Mali. But this short term succession of calamities contradicts the broader reality that each decade of air travel has become safer than the previous one. As tragic as the recent crashes are, they represent barely a fraction of the 93,500 daily airline flights worldwide.

 

"Aviation safety is continuing to get better. A sudden spate of accidents doesn't mean that the industry has suddenly become less safe," says Paul Hayes, director of air safety for Ascend, a travel management software company.

 

Each day, 8.3 million people around the globe — the approximate population of New York City — board a flight. Virtually everyone lands safely. Last year, there were 3.1 billion flyers, twice the total in 1999. Yet, the chances of dying in a plane crash were considerably less. Since 2000, there were fewer than three fatalities per 10 million passengers, according to an Associated Press analysis of crash data provided by aviation consultancy Ascend. In the 1990s, there were nearly eight; during the 1980s there were 11; and the 1970s had 26 deaths per 10 million passengers.

 

Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest U.S. pilots' union, adds that strong oversight by governments and trade groups is needed to ensure proper training across the board. "If you don't have a safe operation, then you're not going to have customers," Moak says. “Countries must also invest in the right infrastructure. There needs to be proper radar coverage, runway landing lights and beacons and skilled airport fire and rescue teams,” asserts Todd Curtis, director of the Airsafe.com Foundation.

 

Technological improvements are also helping to lower the accident rate. Cockpits now come with systems that automatically warn if a jet is too low, about to hit a mountain or collide with another plane. Others detect sudden wind gusts that could make a landing unsafe.

 

The next generation of technology promises to help prevent even more accidents. Honeywell Aerospace launched a new system 18 months ago that gives pilots better awareness about severe turbulence, hail and lightning. The company is also developing a system to improve pilots' vision in stormy weather: an infrared camera will let them see runways through thick clouds earlier than the naked eye would.

 

Worldwide travel is projected to double within the next 15 years, and new challenges will emerge. Sky traffic congestion will rise; the demand for skilled air traffic controllers, pilots and technicians will reach all-time highs. Boeing forecasts the need for another 500,000 pilots and 550,000 maintenance personnel by the year 2035. Still, we have seen with every spike in growth over five decades an overall improvement in safety.

 

The industry deserves kudos for their safety diligence. But new technology is expensive and in order to apply it they may determine to cut costs before the new tech is proven to provide an enhanced safety margin. Safety could be replaced by a need for cost efficiency. Some claim that safety margins in the past have been set too high and we can make do with lower standards as long as it saves money. And new tech may be doing exactly that. Will the temptation to cut costs compromise future safety precautions?

 

 

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