Herald-Whig View

Aviation safety boosted by improvements in aircraft, radar, other systems

Posted: Jan. 10, 2018 10:50 am

IT'S official: 2017 was the safest year for commercial air travel since passenger flights began.

Separate studies by a team of Dutch aviation consultants and the U.S.-based Aviation Safety Network reported last week that there were no passenger jet crashes in the world last year in a record 37 million flights.

In addition, the National Transportation Safety Board reports there has been no loss of life on a major airliner in the United States since 2009, and the last commuter airline crash that resulted in fatalities was in 2013.

This is clearly no small achievement. It has taken decades of work on many fronts to improve airline safety.

Specifically, airplanes are built with fire suppression and evacuation procedures in mind. Redundant safety systems help make sure there are no avionics failures, and materials used in construction have evolved as engineers sought to create the safest aircraft possible.

"Cabin safety has improved by leaps and bounds since the 1970s and '80s," said Adrian Young, a senior consultant during an interview with the Washington Post.

Other advances have improved flight control systems, satellite technology and meteorologic data. Doppler radar is able to spot wind shears, weather systems, hail and a variety of other conditions that pilots might wish to avoid. Other systems let pilots know whether icing is a danger at certain altitudes.

Moreover, pilot protocols have changed and deserve part of the credit for improved safety records.

Locally, SkyWest Airlines started serving Quincy Regional Airport with 50-passenger Bombardier CRJ-200s on Dec. 1. The two-engine jets have excellent safety records, and SkyWest has a pilot-copilot team on each flight.

In addition, flights between Quincy and O'Hare International Airport also are overseen by flight controllers using some of the industry's newest and best technology.

Experts caution there is no room for complacency in the operation of our nation's complex air transit system. Ongoing challenges include risks posed by human fatigue and the fire danger posed by batteries used in consumer electronics. Human error, by the pilot or by passengers, is the hardest issue to address.

Still, passenger flights operated by major carriers are far and away the safest means of mass transportation. So when aviation officials assure travelers that the gravest modern danger to commercial air travel is the drive to the airport, they have the statistics to back it up.

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