Monday, August 28, 2006

Air Travel Safety

I fly nearly every week of the year. Sometimes multiple locations in the same week. So I keep a close eye on air crashes and their causes, like the crash that happened this weekend out of Lexington (I have been on that flight before).

I know intellectually that my chances of dying in a car crash going to or from the airport are higher than being involved in a plane crash - several orders of magnitude higher when I am in a Shanghai taxi cab - but I keep a mental tab of crashes to see if I can find any trends. And based on my observations, I change my flying habits appropriately:

  • Make of Plane - this is the first thing I look at. I won't step foot on a MD "Multiple Defect" 80. And I am a little leery of Airbus 300s after the AA 587 crash out of New York a few years ago. The plane I am most comfortable in is the 747. This old workhorse has had the bugs and fixes ironed out thanks to crashes over the past three decades, like the JAL123 crash. Essentially other people's deaths have made this plane the safest ride in the industry.

  • Jets not Props - A corollary of the above. I had a manager at TI who refused to get on a prop plane. Ever. I was okay with them in the early 90s but got more and more leery of them as they seemed to fall out of the sky during icy weather. So now I am pretty much in the same boat as my ex-manager. This is largely irrelevant for domestic flying since the U.S. airlines have pretty much all upgraded to regional jets.

  • Weather - This is usually a mitigating factor in many crashes, if rarely the direct cause. Rain by itself doesn't bother me. The increased humidity makes the air denser, improving lift. But add other nasty stuff to it: thunder, ice, and hail, and you are talking potential problems. Think windshear, the cause of several crashes, which is one reason I won't get on a plane flying into of or out of thunder showers.

  • Airline - Over 90% of my travel is on U.S. flagged airlines, which have the best safety records in the world. Europeans are second, and, surprisingly to me, Japan is third (I would have guessed they were better than the Europeans). Unfortunately I sometimes have no choice but to get on a Chinese flagged airline, and I had to fly on ex-Aeroflot planes going into and around Ukraine. These are always white knuckle flights. I am having to fly Korean flagged planes a lot lately, which don't have the safest records on the planet. Savvy travelers know to never, ever get on an African flagged airline, since suicide is a cultural norm for both terrorists as well as pilots from there.

  • Pilots - Pilot error is the number one cause of accidents, so when I see the gray-haired, crew-cut, (and obvious) ex-Air Force captain board the plane, any concerns about safety go away. The highest chances of encountering these guys are on U.S. flagged international flights (they are the most senior, most prestigious and highest paying flights). The biggest worry? I am going to be pummeled on this, but when the pony-tailed, 26-year old woman who looks like she just got her Piper license gets into the cockpit of a regional jet and comes over the PA saying "I'll get y'all there in a jiffy!", the term "Final Approach" gets a new definition in my book.

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