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Saturday, 8 January, 2000, 13:24 GMT
Are those in the flight path safe?

by BBC News Online's Bridget Chandler

Last month's Stansted air crash raised important questions about air safety in the UK.

People living in the town of Bishop's Stortford, close to the Essex airport, had a miraculous escape when the Korean Air cargo plane crashed just yards from a densely populated area.

Tens of thousands of people live directly under flight paths in the UK - but is their safety ever taken into consideration when determining which direction aeroplanes take to the sky?

Incidents of planes crashing are statistically incredibly rare.

Korean air crash Debris from the Korean plane crash was scattered across fields
Rarer still is the occasion when a plane collides with buildings on the ground.

But the fact remains - it does happen.

On 4 October 1992 an El Al cargo 747 crashed into a block of flats in an Amsterdam suburb, killing 43 people.

Like the Korean Air plane, it had been carrying depleted uranium as counterweights - only about half of which was recovered.

'Air corridors'

The El Al plane was also carrying chemicals used to manufacture the nerve gas sarin, which local people blamed for health problems they later suffered.

As the skies become busier and the "air corridors" get more clogged - the risk of a major disaster involving a built-up area near an airport increases.

Planes carrying dangerous air cargo such as hazardous chemicals or nuclear material receive special status and cannot fly from commercial airports.

Amsterdam crash An El Al cargo plane crashed into flats in Amsterdam
But that still leaves thousands of aircraft - carrying both passengers and cargo, which the public rely on to take off and land safely from airports every single day.

Determining flight paths for commercial aircraft is an enormously complicated procedure involving a number of organisations.

In the UK, all non-military flying is overseen by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) which also enforces all regulations on behalf of the Civil Aviation Division of the Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions.

Another organisation crucial to the management of the skies is the National Air Traffic Services (NATS), which at present remains a wholly owned subsidiary of the CAA.

But the government is planning to to sell off part of NATS, which is causing widespread concern about the future safety of the industry.

One of the single most important factors determining which flight path a plane follows is an environmental one.

'Throttling back'

Noise abatement laws have meant flight paths being organised so as to cause the least disturbance to people living close to airports.

Planes now "throttle back" when taking off to reduce engine noise and in some cases, certain older models are banned from UK airspace because of the problems posed by noise pollution.

Flight paths are also set bearing in mind the need for aircraft to climb as high as possible, as quickly as possible, so in the event of an aircraft suffering engine failure shortly after take-off, the pilot has as much time as possible to try and take remedial action.

You don't design a flight path in case one crashes... you'd never get a plane off the ground
Air International editor Malcom English
Steps are taken to minimise any risk to people on the ground in the form of public safety zones.

Triangular areas at the end of all runways are set aside as wastelands where no development can take place.

But much construction has taken place since airports were first built. For example, in the early 1980s the M25 motorway was built only a few thousand feet from the end of the runway at London's Heathrow airport.

Taking environmental factors into account, also protects the public because by definition it means the number of planes flying over houses is kept to a minimum.

Malcom English, editor of Air International magazine, says: "You don't design a flight path in case one crashes. You would never get a plane off the ground."

A CAA spokesman said: "The issue is huge. There are so many factors to take into consideration, it combines air traffic control, with historic condsiderations such as where airports are located.


"There is also the direction of runways to bear in mind and how flight paths have evolved and grown as the industry has.

As the Lockerbie disaster showed, planes can fall out of the sky as a result of terrorist activity, or as in other tragedies, as a result of technical failure.

But as the most dangerous time for any aircraft's journey is the take-off and short time immediately afterwards, it is those people living near airports who are right to feel the most concerned.

The people of Bishop's Stortford were able to breathe a sigh of relief after escaping harm when the Korean Air jet crashed.

But for a small deviation in the flight path of the aircraft - they may not have escaped so lightly.

Accidents do happen. But air travel still remains the safest and quickest way of getting from A to B.

As for the people who choose to stay on the ground, rather than take to the skies, they must put their trusts in the large number of experts whose job it is to keep planes where they are meant to be - in the air.

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See also:
06 Jan 00 |  Sci/Tech
Uranium on jet 'not a risk'
06 Jan 00 |  UK
Crash 747 'had navigational failure'
24 Dec 99 |  UK
The AAIB interim report

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