Saturday, August 20, 2005

A disaster waiting to happen

There was always something particularly unwise in the EU's "denied boarding" regulations, which require airlines to pay compensation to passengers when their flights are delayed – almost irrespective of the reasons.

We brought this up in February last, after an incident when a British Airways 747 suffered an engine failure on take off from Los Angeles, en route to Heathrow, when the pilot elected to continue the journey, only to run out of fuel and have to make an emergency landing in Manchester.

At the time it was suggested that the decision to press on had been influenced by the "denied boarding" regulations, which had just come into force – only for this to be denied by the airline.

However, the safety issue has re-emerged this week, with The Telegraph reporting that pilots are speaking out about the commercial pressures they are under to fly even when their planes have technical faults.

It has not escaped notice either that there have been three major air crashes this month and while last year was declared the safest in history for air travel, when there were 428 fatalities; already this year more than 550 people have died in commercial flights. In the past month, three fatal crashes - in Venezuela, Greece and Italy - have resulted in 297 deaths.

Now, it seems, Belgian pilots are claiming that the financial pressures placed on pilots to take off, even in planes with minor technical malfunctions, have increased significantly as a result of the EU’s compensation requirements.

These claims are being made in the Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad after 121 people died when their Helios Airways plane hit a hillside in Greece on Sunday, after losing cabin pressure, and after 160 people were killed when a West Caribbean Airways plane crashed in Venezuela on Tuesday when both engines failed.

Helios admitted there had previously been problems with the air pressure system on the plane. Interviews with one of the pilot's mothers indicated that her son may have been aware of such problems before taking off.

"The commercial pressure on the shoulders of pilots has increased enormously," says Filip van Rossum, a former Sabena pilot. "The profit margins in the aviation sector are paper-thin, the competition is fierce and the aviation industry is sensitive to rising oil prices. "Keeping a plane on the ground costs money, and aviation bosses want their pilots to keep their planes flying for as long as possible."

Van Rossum's views have been echoed by the Colombian Pilots' Association, which said its members had repeatedly warned the country's Civil Aeronautics Board about the inadequate safety procedures of West Caribbean Airways, before Tuesday's crash. As six of the airline's seven planes had been grounded for maintenance work, the aircraft that crashed in Venezuela had flown for nearly 20 hours continuously to cover the company's remaining routes.

The Colombian Civil Aviation Authority said it had fined the airline on several occasions for offences ranging from pilots not getting sufficient rest between flights to a lack of proper aircraft maintenance and pilot training. The airline has been put under "special watch" because of its financial difficulties.

However, there are also fears that the passenger compensation requirements could result in pilots with major scheduled airlines coming under pressure to take risks for commercial reasons. "One area that must not 'give' is flight safety," says Captain Mervyn Granshaw, chairman of the British Airline Pilots Association. "We need to ensure that any attempts to avoid compensation do not affect flight safety, and that there is no attempt to force planes to take off when it is inappropriate."

By way of balance, The Telegraph cites "a leading aviation expert", who has dismissed such fears, arguing that because of the huge choice of carriers available, airlines cannot afford to cut corners. "There is so much choice on nearly every route that airlines need to show that their safety records are unblemished, or travellers will opt to fly with another airline," said David Learmount, editor of Flight International. "According to the historical trend, what we have seen this year is just a blip. Safety levels have never been higher."

Despite this, the regulations cannot help but increase pressure to fly, whatever the expert might say. And, sooner or later, we could see a major air disaster in which this ill-considered EU law will be a contributory factor. Not for nothing did we, last February, dub this law the "denied safety" regulations. If the pilots are right, they are a disaster waiting to happen.

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