2014 : A perilous year for flying

Taking off early morning over Seattle (Jun 2013) enjoying the gorgeous view of Mount Rainier as it stands tall above the omni-present cloud cover in the Seattle area.

I love flying. Every time I get on a flight, I look forward to the breathtaking views such as this one above Seattle. Watching cities from up above is a great experience— our only other alternatives being Sim City and Google Earth, which let’s admit are nowhere as good as the real thing. Recently a friend was treated to a display of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) on board a flight flying over Greenland. Besides the views, being disconnected (at least for the time being until in-flight wifi gains mass adoption) flying can be a good opportunity to enjoy a good book or movie and every once in a while to have an interesting conversation with a stranger.

Northern lights witnessed in flight over Greenland. Photo Credit : Evgeny Ternovsky (@E_Ternovsky454)

However, every time I fly, I also have my hands folded in silent prayer before take off — hoping for a safe flight and to avoid turbulence along the way (which still gives me goosebumps). 2014 has given an all new meaning to wishing your loved ones, ‘have a safe flight’. Watching the heart breaking news unfold on Air Asia flight QZ 8501 adds to the list of air disasters in 2014. And this does not seem related to the quality or safety standards of the airlines involved. AirAsia was named the World’s Best Low Cost Airline in 2014. In April, I flew Air Asia from Singapore to Bali and despite it being a ‘low cost’ carrier, I found it to be better than the full service airlines here in the US. The twice unlucky Malaysian Airlines, now subject to much ridicule and even distasteful jokes was a 5 Star rated airline (now it’s rating is under review) by SkyTrax, an air travel rating agency.

Let’s take a look back at the air disasters of 2014.

Flight path and search area for MH 370. Source : BBC

It all started with MH 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing which disappeared on March 8, 2014 with 239 passengers on board. Despite an unprecedented multi-national search and rescue effort, very little is known of what actually happened to the aircraft. This BBC page has a good summary of all that is known about MH370. Satellite data points to the last known location somewhere in the Southern Indian ocean. But how it got there (it was supposed to fly north from KL on a clear moonlit night) and whether it is really even there can only be discerned once its black box is recovered. It is bizarre that in this day and age something as advanced as a Boeing 777 aircraft can get ‘lost’ and continue to fly for hours undetected by civilian and military radar of multiple countries. While we have achieved tremendous technological progress, mother nature still reigns supreme and vast regions of our oceans are inaccessible even to the best navigators.

Then came another shocker for Malaysian Airlines MH 17 (Amsterdam to KL) which was shot down over Ukrainian Airspace on July 17, killing all 298 people on board (summary on the BBC). Amongst the victims was a group of several prominent AIDS researchers who were traveling to Australia for a conference. Politics aside, it is unfortunate that such a heinous crime went unpunished with Western nations blaming Russian backed rebel forces and Russia blaming Ukrainian government forces for the same. The flight path taken by MH17 is a major route between Europe and Asia and there were about 8 other commercial aircraft in close vicinity (including by some reports, aircraft carrying the newly inducted Indian PM, Narendra Modi). While fate would have it that rebels shot down this particular aircraft (with severe reputational consequences to Malaysian Airlines), it could easily have been another carrier since there seemed no particular motive behind this attack.

SpaceShip 2. Image Source: Virgin Galactic

Later in the year, on October 31 2014, Virgin Galactic SpaceShip 2 after a series of successful flights, crashed over the Mojave Desert in one of its final test flights before beginning commercial service planned for 2015. The reason I include this in commercial air disasters is due to the vision at Virgin Galactic and its potential to revolutionize air travel. Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group and Virgin Galactic, wrote on his blog ‘I have no doubt that during my lifetime we will be able to fly you on a Virgin Galactic spaceplane from London to Sydney in perhaps 2.5 hours with minimal environmental impact.’ Space exploration has always been incredibly difficult and a lot of people have given their lives for the ultimate pursuit. It was remarkable that one (of the two) pilot survived the crash having been thrown free from the spacecraft as it disintegrated.

Arrivals board at Singapore Changi Airport after QZ 8501 went missing. Source : BBC

Finally, on December 28, 2014, Air Asia QZ 8501 (Surabaya to Singapore), with 162 people on board, lost contact and disappeared from radar about 45 minutes into its flight. While this story is still developing, the aircraft was flying in stormy weather and had requested a deviation from its standard path to avoid a thick cloud and is believed to have crashed in the ocean. While this aircraft belonged to Air Asia Indonesia, it is part of the larger Air Asia Group in Malaysia. Tough times indeed for Malaysia with 3 catastrophic incidents this year. While most of these incidences are perhaps beyond anyone’s control, they certainly have spooked air passengers across the region and have called for a review of safety standards and procedures in the highly competitive and growing South East Asian aviation industry.

These incidents might make us feel nervous about air travel and question the trend of aviation safety — this CNN report on aviation safety data puts things into perspective. However, there is reason for concern, the number of fatalities this year has been much higher than average and more than double that of 2013 (459) — 986 compared to the 10 year average of 676 as per the Aviation Safety Network. (Note the numbers on ASN’s website regarding 2014 need to be updated to include MH 17 and QZ 8501. The revised total is 526 + 298 + 162 = 986). Traveling by road is still the most treacherous form of transport. According to WHO’s 2013 Global Status Report on Road Safety, about 1.24 million people die on roads worldwide every year. This report by CBC news compares safety across the various forms of transport.

No amount of statistics though will bring comfort to the grieving families who’ve lost their loved ones, my deep condolences to them.

Bottom line, life is short and unpredictable. While with today’s technology we like to think we are in control, life throws unexpected turns and we should make the best of everyday. Since we aren’t turning back to ships for inter-continental transport (they have their own fair share of problems with the Ferry Fire in Greece being the latest disaster this week), we probably have no choice but to use airplanes — so might as well count our blessings, sit back, relax and enjoy the flight.