Air safety: the challenges ahead

Aviation operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, mostly without incident. Yet with ever-increasing passenger numbers and complexity, The National's travel editor looks at the importance of a dynamic approach to staffing

FILE- In this Monday, March 12, 2018 file photo, Nepalese rescuers and police are seen near the debris after a passenger plane from Bangladesh crashed at the airport in Kathmandu, Nepal.Survivors of this week's plane crash at Nepal's main airport said Wednesday that it was a miracle they survived an accident that killed 49 of the 71 people on board. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shreshta, File)
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In January, I wrote a column about the great strides that have been made and are being made constantly in the global effort to keep air travel safe. This week, in the wake of the devastating crashes of a Bangladeshi airline at Nepal's Tribhuvan International Airport and a private flight from Sharjah to Istanbul, readers may want to know more about the risk factors at play when they fly, and the nature of the current challenges in the system.

Kathmandu is an airport I've flown in and out of several times and would describe as "challenging" due to its geography and lack of development in infrastructure. Because even experienced pilots need special training to land there, and its long incident list, I make a point of only using one of the world's safest airlines, such as Etihad, to fly in and out of Nepal. Yet once there, travellers often have no such choice. I've flown on two of the four Nepali airlines ranked at the bottom of the global airline safety rankings – Buddha Air and Yeti Air.

Given the number of flights operating on a daily basis and the still very low ratio of passenger numbers to fatalities, it’s still clear that the International Civil Aviation Organization’s “No Country Left Behind” initiative is very successful in ensuring that countries are able to cut across borders, economic levels, political divides and priorities to work towards improvements.

Yet in my previous piece I ended with a note of caution: “One of the biggest ongoing challenges is the growing complexity of technology and the interaction between that and the people using it. The global airline industry is held together by the remarkable hard work of thousands of individuals, day in day out. It’s now not just about “no country left behind” but “no people left behind.”’

People are the glue that keeps the industry together – the pilots, cabin crew, air traffic controllers, technicians, ground handling staff, regulators, auditors, and the thousands of other job roles out there. Aviation can be compared to a complex mechanical watch with all parts needing to work in perfect harmony – which it does pretty well for most of the time.

But there are challenges that every region or country faces and will need to address. According to aviation experts, the utilization of manpower is critical. Long flights, shorter turnaround ground times for crew, a growing number of flights and passengers puts more stress on ground staff. There is a shrinking talent pool, meaning that many regions and countries increasingly face growing shortages of key personnel. Training, initial and recurrent, in increasingly complex systems, quicker reaction times, and tight operational schedules mean training does not get its due importance (especially for ground-related non-technical jobs).

Then there's the issue of technology and processes. With the mish-mash of systems and technologies of varying ages that still form the backbone of the industry, one weak link can lead to a knock-on effect. While creating significant efficiencies, some experts worry that technology is reducing human-to-human communication, sometimes with detrimental effect. While the cause of US-Bangla Airlines crash is still not certain, there has been much discussion of apparent uncertainty over on which runway the airliner was trying to land on, and from which direction.

There had also apparently been a storm in the area shortly before the aircraft landing, which had produced clouds and possibly reduced visibility. Changing weather patterns and how to deal with them are also a current air safety concern, both on the ground and in the air. The lack of adequate infrastructure across the world  is also significant factor in heightening safety related issues.

Finally, some air safety experts worry that the industry is not focusing enough on future job roles, requirements and competencies that may be the order of the day, and many have found that while jobs evolve, people have been left behind.


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