Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Safety is What You Make It

When you fly, even if you're a jaded, experienced traveller, and know how to hide your notebook computer under your jacket when the flight attendant looks at you, please put it away. Stow your carry on baggage completely and don't hold heavy objects during takeoff and landing. Fasten your seatbelt tightly. Pay rapt attention to the safety briefing and any instructions from the flight attendants. I understand that a certain joking fatalism is a common defense mechanism to avoid thinking about what could happen, but it's better to think and be prepared. There are survivable airplane crashes. Here's a B737 torn apart by impact forces, but the only death associated is suspected to be a heart attack and not the immediate result of injuries sustained. There was no fire, and clearly the nearest emergency exit to many people would be the gaping hole where the fuselage ended, so no one was trapped.

I don't have any information on what happened to cause that crash. It sounds like they might have encountered a sudden downdraft. I'll try to follow up when the investigation reports a result.

Another story, related only in that it takes place in Colombia has a reader of this blog flying as a passenger in Colombia, in what he thought was a small pressurized airplane, about ten to fifteen passengers on board. And it was raining inside the plane. It's not clear if it was raining outside and leaking or if there was condensation leaking out of the headliners, but the folks in the back were getting wet. A passenger yelled up to the cockpit that it was raining inside and we were all going to die. The FO turned around and his enraged response was, "Callate por favor! Tenemos problemas mas grande aqui al frente ... no podemos ver nada, hay monta├▒as en todas partes aca y hemos perdido contacto con... ."

I'll give the Spanish speakers a chance to gasp and or laugh at that while the others can wonder what they'd think about the FO yelling incoherently at them. He was yelling, "Would you please shut up! We've got bigger problems up front ... we can't see anything, there's mountains everywhere, and we've lost contact with ..."

The person who told me that story says he prayed until a safe landing and never again took a "non-reputable" airline in South America. Ironically, the day before he had read a very similar account in a story from 1945. Some things never change.

It's not that people in Colombia cannot fly safely, maintain airplanes safely or do everything else to any arbitrary safety standard. There is no absolute safety, only a level that you choose to maintain. It's just that the normal level of what is generally considered to be 'sufficiently safe' is different from place to place. The roads in different countries aren't built to the same standards; South American buses are a clich├ę. A lot of it is money: money for parts, inspection, training, maintenance and infrastructure too. It would cost the same amount of money to build and maintain one road to US department of highway standards as it costs Colombia to build and maintain any number of roads. The degree of safety in any organization is balanced between money available, regulatory pressures, regulator oversight, competition on price, customer demands, and inertia of the current practices and procedures. In any organization you get the safety you work and pay for. There are freak accidents, yes, but there are also freak 'almost accidents' that warn alert companies of the possibility of actual ones.

8 comments:

frederic said...

I've flown a lot in Colombia - mostly on the big, reputable airlines like Avianca or AeroRepublica, but also on small operators like the relatively new discount airline EasyFly (they fly small Jetstream 41s). Never flown on Aires, though.

I never felt unsafe on those planes and AeroRepublica's Embraer 190s are still some of the most modern planes I've ever been on. Hard to judge their safety standards as a passenger, but in terms of professionalism, I don't see any difference between U.S. and Colombian crews.

Now when it comes to buses, that's a very different story...

jump154 said...

Amazing the number of odd looks I get when I actually pull out the safety briefing card - usually now to check if I can actually open the rear doors if we ditch (something I learned from the Hudson River event). Before I learned to fly, I was Mr "I know it all, no need to pay atention" - now i'm "let's get all this into near term memory just in case" - so I count rows to the exit doors, make sure my shoes are on and tied etc etc.... I hate it when the FA's have to remind me of something (yesterday's flight I was asleep and didn't hear the seatback up instruction, but I still failed my personal standards having to be reminded...)
Still, if I think I set a good example, it may rub off...and it may save my ass one day!
Seatbelts is my pet peeve. I"m looking out of the window at CB ahead, above our cruise level of FL380....then the seat belt sign comes on...still people get up to go to the washroom, or just stand around.. probably the first to sue when they break a leg as well.Maybe even mmoderate turbulence should be mandatory from time to time to make folk understand???

Aviatrix said...

jump154: You said it, brother!

coreydotcom said...

I also look at the briefing card and the announcement, because much like jump154, i like having it stored in my short term memory... just in case.

Another useful tip I have figured out: look for the barf bag. Even if you don't get sick. You never if the middle aged dominican woman sitting next to you on the SDO - JFK flight has one! (yeah, smelling like pepperoni for a couple of hours after is not pleasant).

And I have also had excellent experiences on Avianca and AeroGal in Colombia. I don't think it was raining in one of their planes lol!

Aluwings said...

RE: "Maybe even mmoderate turbulence should be mandatory from time to time to make folk understand???"

When they notice that passengers are up moving in the cabin during times of SEAT BELTS ON and smooth air (but with a high potential for suddenly rough air), some pilots have been known to wiggle the controls just a little to imitate light chop and remind everyone.

Or so I've heard...

D.B. said...

For some reason they always put the "seat belts" on when I am either 1) next in line for the bathrooms, or 2) already inside the bathroom partly dis-robed. Despite being a pilot and knowing the dangers, I have been known to finish up anyway :)

But I thoroughly agree with reading the card and determining my fastest way out. When flying with my family we each decide which kid we would grab on our way....

Anonymous said...

@D.B. : You make a good point and I always like to give passengers a heads up that the seat belt sign will be going on in a few minutes when approaching a line of T-storms. As someone with a short range bladder, when flying as a passenger, I hate being caught between obeying the seat belt sign or embarrassing myself in public.

jump154 said...

the other guaranteed time for turbulence is the delivery of a brim-full drink. Especially a hot one.