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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 August 2005, 09:14 GMT 10:14 UK
Is flying still the safest way to travel?
By Margaret Ryan
BBC News

Four fatal plane crashes this month in Europe and South America have claimed the lives of hundreds of people.

Despite the grim news of these disasters, flying is often said to be one of the safest ways to travel. But just how safe is it?

Tail fin after Helios plane crash
All passengers and crew died in the Cypriot plane crash in Greece
On 14 August, all 121 passengers and crew on a Cyprus airline flight bound for Prague died when it crashed into a mountainside near Athens.

Two days later, a Colombian plane operated by West Caribbean Airways crashed in a remote region of Venezuela, killing all 160 people on board.

In the latest crash, a passenger plane came down in Peru's Amazon jungle, causing the deaths of at least 40 of the 100 people on board.

The string of disasters began when at least 13 of 39 passengers and crew were killed after a Tunisian passenger plane made an emergency landing in the sea off the Italian island of Sicily on 6 August.

Investigations continue into what went wrong on these flights.

But airline safety worldwide is now six times better than it was 25 years ago, says David Learmount, operations and safety editor for Flight International magazine.

A country either values human life and has a safety culture or it doesn't
David Learmount
Flight International magazine

In 1979 there were three fatal accidents per million flights, compared with one fatal accident per two million flights by last year, according to International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) figures.

"The reduction in accident numbers has been so relentless since the Wright brothers flew that when we look at the latest crashes in history they will be a little blip in a graph," said Mr Learmount.

Safety improvements are due to better technology, compulsory industry audits and tougher competition, he said.

When compared with all other modes of transport on a fatality per kilometre basis, air transport is the safest, insists the Civil Aviation Authority.

'Don't panic'

Aviation expert Dr Graham Braithwaite said it was important not to panic about flying in the aftermath of air disasters.

But he appreciates a major air disaster on a small fleet - such as the Air France Concorde flight which crashed five years ago killing 113 people - can make even a safe form of travel suddenly seem dangerous.

Passengers at Heathrow
Flying is reportedly six times safer than 25 years ago
As well as leaving the families of victims traumatised, plane crashes will always have far-reaching repercussions for the industry and travelling public, said Mr Braithwaite, who is director of Cranfield Safety and Accident Investigation.

"We need to accept the public are concerned or affected by these accidents. We shouldn't placate them with statistics."

However convincing those statistics, someone with an irrational fear may still not be reassured, according to Susie Stevenson, of Virtual Aviation, which runs a course for people scared of flying.

She does not doubt major air disasters heighten fears but said they do not see an upsurge in inquiries after crashes.

"Fear is so individual that a lot of people need to find the time to face that fear."

That might mean people turn up for a course years after a plane crash clutching a newspaper report of an accident, she said.

And an estimated 10 million people in the UK have some fear of flying, says Richard Conway, from Virgin Atlantic's fear of flying course.

"When people are panicking we answer their questions. We say, 'Yes, there will be turbulence,' but we explain why."

Safety records

Fear of flying can be a positive influence on safety as higher public expectations drive up standards, said Dr Braithwaite. And he accepted some concern was warranted.

"It is wrong for people to be frightened of flying because of these crashes but they should be informed about who they are flying with. All airlines are not equal."

Air France jet on fire Photo:Ginger Fillion
All 309 Air France passengers survived the Toronto crash
Mr Learmount, of Flight International, agrees standards vary.

"A country either values human life and has a safety culture or it doesn't," he said.

Africa as a continent has an "appalling record" overall, he said, while some former Soviet Union countries have poor records as do some in the Pacific Rim.

In contrast North America, Europe and Australasia have good safety records.

As for whether you are safer the more you pay for your flight, Mr Learmount said this was not borne out by the statistics.

"There is no difference in the safety records of low cost airlines and your Virgin or BA flights," he said.

But Dr Braithwaite warned: "Everyone wants things to be cheaper and faster and this puts pressure on the system."

He said there was no room for complacency within the industry, despite good safety records overall.

Insurance pay-outs

This seems unlikely when airlines face multi-million pound insurance claims in the event of a plane crash.

The lead insurer for Helios airline said it was too early to say what the insurance implications would be of the Cyprus crash as it was not yet known what had caused it.

Airlines tended to have $1.5bn (800m) cover for insurance liability but Helios had significantly less than this, said Stephen Riley, business and corporate development executive for Global Aerospace.

He added that the cost of claims was influenced by where the passengers came from.

"Clearly passengers in some parts of the world attract higher awards," said Mr Riley, who is also a board member of the International Underwriting Association (IUA).

Mr Riley said that had the Air France flight that crashed in Toronto on 2 August resulted in fatalities, the cost to the insurance sector could have been as high as $1bn (550m). Fortunately all the passengers and crew survived.

One individual crash did not have a significant impact on overall claims though, he said, because undewriters looked at statistics over a long period.

In the aftermath of 11 September airline insurance more than doubled, but it had later fallen with the reduced frequency of major disasters, Mr Riley said.

Fewer people flying, safety improvements and new technology had all played a part in improving safety records.

As for insurance pay-outs, he said: "We have had a two or three-year period where the frequency of losses has been generally below the previous average.

"What we might be seeing this year are figures of losses returning to a number similar to the longer term average".

Air disasters timeline
17 Aug 05 |  Europe
Crash relatives fly to Venezuela
19 Aug 05 |  Americas
Grim find at Venezuela crash site
17 Aug 05 |  Americas
Crash victims 'alive on impact'
16 Aug 05 |  Europe
Can you survive a plane crash?
11 Aug 05 |  Magazine
Plane crash off Sicily kills 13
06 Aug 05 |  Europe
Passengers survive plane inferno
02 Aug 05 |  Americas

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