Air Safety has always been a major issue ever since the introduction of airplane technology. You always hear that a person is more likely to get into an accident in their car than as a result of failed air safety. While this may be true, it is understandable how people can still feel like they aren’t safe in the air, because they have no control over the plane. Nevertheless, there are dangers to air safety and there are things to be aware of when it comes to being air safe!
Air Safety Risks
There are many things that can go wrong when it comes to air safety, and although many of them are highly unlikely occurrences, they still exist.
Lightning: It is possible, though highly unlikely that a bolt of lightning will strike an airplane (estimates show that this only occurs approximately twice a year). The good news is, even if you are one of the unlucky flights to be struck by lightning, air safety has evolved to the point where airplanes can withstand virtually all lightning strikes, and advancements are still being made
Ice and Snow: Ice and snow create an air safety issue as well, similar to that of your car. Additionally though, ice and cold conditions can cause problems in flight, which is all the more frightening. Unlike your car, which will run fine when warmed up (you just have to worry about hitting a patch of ice), airplanes in flight can accumulate ice in critical areas which can inhibit or ever shut down proper flight. Thankfully, there are technological countermeasures to these problems, as well as support from the ground. Planes expected to go through conditions which may cause icing are covered with de-icer, and routes are often redirected to avoid the issue entirely. Heat that is expelled from the massive jet engines also can be redirected to keep the critical areas thawed out in harsh conditions. Air traffic controllers on the ground are able to monitor changing conditions, and pilots are often equipped with ice detectors so they can also redirect if need be.. just in case the support on the ground falls through.
Engine Failure: This air safety hazard is terrifying, but surprisingly enough very rare and in most circumstances it is not even an issue. Only when all engines on one side of the plane go out, or if all engines go out, is there a serious problem, and even then a skilled pilot can often glide to a safe landing with minimal damage to the plane and minimal injury to passengers.
Metal Fatigue, Delamination: these are air safety risks associated with the body of the plane decaying in some form or another. It has been decades since either of these air safety risks have been an issue. Planes are subject to rigorous testing and inspection to ensure that neither of these risks ever translate to serious danger.
Stalling: This air safety risk occurs when a plane attempts to ascend too rapidly. The good news is that a stall is usually recoverable and always preventable, because there are warning signs designed to alert the pilot when a stall threshold is approaching.
Cabin Fire: Of the host of highly unlikely air safety risks that come with travelling via airplane, this one is the most likely to be a serious problem. If a fire occurs in your cabin, there is a good chance that it is toxic, there is an even better chance that everyone is going to panic and turn into a mindless mob, and unless the fire is suppressed, somebody is almost definitely going to die. Fortunately this is where you have some control. Do NOT panic. This is a bad air safety situation and panicking is only going to exacerbate the situation. The minute you see, smell, or sense smoke or fire, cover your mouth, filter your air with your clothing, or use oxygen masks if accessible. LISTEN to the stewards when they do their little air safety demonstration about evacuating the plane in the event of emergency. Know which route you are going to take in the event of a necessary immediate evacuation.
Bird Strike: Strange as it may seem, birds do occasionally find their way into the engines, and this can cause engine failure. However, it is an unlikely air safety risk for several reasons. First of all, as already discussed, engine failure itself is not necessarily an immediate danger. Second, the bird strike air safety risk is most likely near take off and landing, so you are not that far off of the ground to begin with. Third, on large passenger airplanes the design of the engine is such that even sucking in a bird is not likely to even cause engine failure (it is actually more likely in small jets). Finally, there are counter measures to this air safety risk as well: poisonous grass to discourage birds from nesting near airports, people with shotguns, falconers, and recording sounds of predators.
Ramp Rash: This is a generic term for ground equipment that comes into contact with airplanes on a daily basis: the boarding ramp, catering trucks, and the cargo belt-loaders. When these or other pieces of equipment come into contact with the airplane, they can occasionally create small scratches or dents, which though ostensibly insignificant can comprise the structural integrity of the airplane, creating a serious air safety hazard. Again, all such ‘collisions’ are carefully inspected and a flight will be grounded if there is any suspicion of a potential in flight problem.
Volcanic Ash: Obviously this is only a significant air safety risk if you are flying near a volcano, but surprisingly it is significant in such circumstances. Volcanic ash can damage many vital components of an airplane, including propellers, turbocompressor blades, cabin windows (impairing visibility), fuel and water systems, gears, turbine blades, fuel nozzles, combustors, and even the engine.
Human error: Not surprisingly, this is the most common cause of air safety hazards. There is a significant degree of human involvement (outside of the design, creation, and construction of the technology itself) in all airplane travel. Frighteningly enough, it is not only the pilot who is capable of downing a flight due to their error. Airplane assistants such as those that close the cargo door can do so improperly, which can lead to the crashing of a plane. Frighteningly enough, there have been multiple incidences of inebriated pilots over the course of airplane history. When discovered they are typically fired on the spot, but for every pilot that was found to be under the influence, how many others went undetected?
Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT): Basically, this occurs when pilots put too much faith into malfunction navigation systems, so is somewhat related to human error. The pilot thinks that the flight is going fine but too late discovers that the airplane is headed straight for a mountain or some other terrain. There are multiple independent detection systems in place, as well as air traffic controllers who assist in keeping an eye on the flights, so this air safety risk is highly mitigated.
Terrorism: Americans are keenly aware of the dangers of terrorism ever since September 11, 2001. Ever since then, additional safety measures are implemented to prevent terrorism in the skies, including air marshals and a highly more rigorous screening program for persons boarding an airplane.
Airport Design: A poorly designed airport can be the cause of danger as well. One of the most prominent examples of dangerous airport design is a runway system that does not allow ample distance for an airplane to come to a complete stop. This can occur at airports that were originally built for the purposes of propeller planes (which require a shorter distance), but have been modified to accommodate modern airplanes. Should these airports have not upgraded the runway length, there is a potential risk with every landing. One technology that is in use to allow for a safe landing is EMACS, which is basically a large chunk of crushable concrete at the end of the runway that will safely absorb the momentum of the airplane, bringing it to a rapid stop. Watch out for whiplash!
Infection: Airplanes are potential breeding ground for infection. People from all different walks of life converge into a small, densely packed area, and if even one person has some kind of illness, it may not be long before they spread it throughout the entire flight. Make sure to take your vitamins, drink some orange juice, and breathe carefully if you think someone nearby is ill.
Emergency evacuations: It is almost comedic in an ironically morbid sense that evacuations of planes themselves are a risk. In one emergency evacuation test, 33 of 873 volunteers were injured simply from using the airplane evacuation slide. The worst injury was a broken leg. The control over whether your will safely use an airplane slide rests largely in you. A couple of tips: be aware of the two closest escape hatches to your seat (in case one is blocked by smoke), do not wear high heels or pantyhose on the flight, do not grab your luggage during evacuation, move fast but stay calm, JUMP onto the slide (don’t sit and push yourself), keep your heels up and your arms crossed, and when you get to the bottom, GET OUT OF THE WAY.
Runway Risks: Outside of the previously mentioned airport design hazards, a form of human error involving unexpected runway dangers can also cause hazards, even as recently as 2005. In this category, there are the dangers of runway excursion (not getting off the ground before the runway ends), runway incursion (the inappropriate presence of a person, vehicle or second airplane on a runway), and runway confusion (a play using the incorrect runway to take off or land).
Good Air Safety
Despite the many potential air safety hazards described above, the truth is that it is very unlikely for you to be present at the time of an occurrence of any one of these hazards. They do happen, but everyday people are working to mitigate and eliminate these risks. The best you can do is be aware of which dangers you have any control over, and the proper course of action you should take if you are unlucky enough to ever be faced with one. The most important thing you can do to be a part of the solution and not the problem is to stay calm and try to keep your head about you. It is common for people to panic in dangerous situations, and air safety protocol takes that into account, but as long as you can stay a little more calm and focused then is expected of you, you will not be responsible for making a situation worse.