Air France Tragedy Calls for Real Risk Assessment

By Calder, Simon | The Independent (London, England), June 6, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Air France Tragedy Calls for Real Risk Assessment

Calder, Simon, The Independent (London, England)

By Tuesday morning, media intrusion of grieving relatives at Paris's main airport had become so intensive that Air France felt obliged to send a message to editors: please keep reporters and camera crews away from the hotels around Charles de Gaulle.

Twenty-four hours earlier, the first distressing murmurs about flight AF447 from Rio to Paris had begun to emerge when the Airbus A330 failed to make landfall after crossing the Atlantic. Ninety minutes after the flight was due to arrive in Paris, the airline was forced to conclude that the aircraft and the 228 people on board had been lost; the fuel tanks would have run dry.

As dreadful realisation spread among the families of the passengers and the colleagues of the crew, the media converged on Charles de Gaulle. They began to cover the unfolding tragedy, and the endless speculation about the causes of the disaster, just as they did nine summers ago when an Air France Concorde bound for New York crashed shortly after take-off from the airport, killing all 109 on board and four people on the ground.

THE LIVES of the relatives and friends of those who died - including five British and three Irish passengers - have been shattered. And even among travellers with no connection to the victims, the AF447 loss could reawaken anxieties about flying. Until last Monday, the concept of a western European airliner disappearing in mid-ocean seemed inconceivable, the kind of event that did not happen in the 21st century. The investigation into why the Air France plane apparently fell out of the sky will be slow and painstaking. Should travellers change their behaviour ? I called Dr Todd Curtis, flight safety guru and founder of the website

Some readers have contacted the travel desk questioning the wisdom of flying the Atlantic in an A330 or similar twin-engined jet rather than a four-engined plane such as a Boeing 747. An Air France 747 on the same route a couple of hours earlier safely made the journey to Paris. And Virgin Holidays once promoted its four- engined aircraft using slogans such as "We like four engines across the Big Pond", and "We think two engines are a bit stingy". But Dr Curtis does not believe that travelling on a twin-engined jet is inherently risky:

"Engine reliability is so high that a simultaneous or near- simultaneous independent failure of two engines is a very, very unlikely event. While it is possible that a catastrophic failure of one engine can lead to damage to a second, for example debris from an uncontained failure taking out a second engine, there have been no such events I am aware of from the history of dual-engine passenger jet transports."

Few people have flown as far as the Lonely Planet founder, Tony Wheeler.

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