Airlines fighting against fear factor

ISTANBUL - Air travel is routinely described as "the safest way to travel" but this reputation has taken a battering after no less than four fatal incidents in less than a year.

Just one week ago, on Wednesday, 40 people were killed after a TransAsia Airways flight crashed into a river in Taiwan’s capital Taipei after hitting an overpass.

Footage of the doomed plane clipping an elevated section of road before plunging into the Keelung River has been imprinted on people’s minds.

In apparent defiance of statistical probability this was the second fatal air accident for the same airline within the last seven months. On July 23, another TransAsia flight crashed in Taiwan's western Penghu Islands during an aborted landing, claiming more than 40 lives.

Last Wednesday's crash also follows three Malaysia-related aviation disasters in the last 11 months -- including the unknown fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 which went missing last March en route to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew aboard not long after leaving Kuala Lumpur.

Despite the most intensive search in commercial aviation history, no trace of the plane has been found so far.

In total, there were 990 fatalities in 21 fatal airliner accidents in 2014, according to an accident report of the Netherlands-based Aviation Safety Network.

Reasons behind aviation accidents vary but it is often a series of risk factors coming together simultaneously which can spell disaster, say aviation experts speaking to The Anadolu Agency.

"These could be everything -- technical failures, pilot errors or unexpected weather conditions, but air accidents generally occur when many failures gather," says Behcet Komurcu, general coordinator of the Association of Turkey Airline Pilots.

According to Turkey’s Transport Ministry, pilot error is the primary cause in 55 percent of all fatal air accidents. Mechanical failures follow with 20 percent rate and weather conditions with 13 percent. The U.S.-based website claims the pilot’s role is the primary cause in 57 percent of plane crashes. 

Komurcu, a retired pilot who flew worldwide for over 40 years, says those flying aircraft have to exercise split-second decision making: "For example, in the Indian Ocean, weather conditions change every time. In this situation, as a pilot you should make quick decisions in order to prevent any unexpected situation."

However, there are some unpredictable weather incidents like lightning, fog and wind shear, which make things difficult for pilots.

"Lightning can cause a breakdown of a plane’s engine or fog can affect the visibility range negatively," the retired pilot says.

Turkish meteorologist Mikdat Kadioglu describes the importance of weather estimates for a safe flight. 

"What will be the direction of the wind during the flight? How much altitude will a plane need to fly at in order not to hit turbulence? How much fuel will a plane need? All of these are about weather estimates and should be calculated properly."

Birds -- even if they are small -- are also another threat.

"You cannot predict a bird strike. These kinds of incidents happen while taking off and landing. Airport officials take measures against them but again you may encounter a bird and it can cause damage to the plane," Komurcu adds.

In this situation, the skills and experiences of pilots are crucial, say experts.

"Pilots should be ready for every kind of failures and should evaluate every situation in a right way in order to avert any dangers," says Bekir Er, a flying instructor at Ankara-based Turkish Aeronautical Association.

"Experienced pilots can decrease accident risks if they have a lot of flight experience," Er says; however he is cautious about this. "But some accidents occur with these pilots as some of them are so self-confident and do not care about some warnings."

Aircraft maintenance checks are another risk factor.

"Some technical checks can sometimes be lacking or made in a wrong way and cause an accident," Er says. "Again, planes are mechanical vehicles -- you cannot guarantee that they will not break down even if checks are completed properly."

On Friday, Taiwan’s Aviation Safety Council revealed that data from the two black boxes retrieved from the TransAsia Airways ATR72-600 aircraft indicated that both of its engines had lost power before it crashed into the Keelung River.

According to flying instructor Er, "more engines mean more safety... If I could choose, I would always select four-engine planes with which to travel."

"Again, this does not mean two-engine planes are not secure. You can travel with them comfortably."

Although all of these risk factors exist, air travel is still accepted as the safest means of transportation, compared to driving, and its safety is getting better every day with advances in technologies.

The reality is that despite the recent high-profile crashes, there has been a reduction in the overall numbers of aviation accidents over the last years, according to a report of the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization or ICAO.

The global accident rate decreased by around 40 percent, from 4.1 accidents per million departures in 2009 to 2.8 accidents in 2013, the report says.

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