First thing’s first, we need to trundle out the boring but critical post-crash disclaimer: It is a bad idea to speculate too broadly on the how-and-why so soon after an air disaster.
Almost always the initial hunches and theories end up totally off-base or at best incomplete. We live in an age when people want and expect instant answers, but that just isn’t possible with plane crashes.
It often takes months or even years before a cause is nailed down. In some cases we never learn for sure what happened.
That said, a seeming red flag in Sunday’s AirAsia disappearance is the weather. Could the Airbus A320, flying from the busy Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore, have wandered inadvertently into a violent thunderstorm and suffered some kind of catastrophic malfunction or structural failure? It’s possible.
I’ll point out that flying into thunderstorms is about the biggest no-no in all of commercial aviation. The crew had asked for a weather-related altitude change shortly before the disappearance, a request that was denied by air traffic control — presumably because of traffic constraints. This isn’t terribly unusual; pilots ask for altitude changes and route deviations all the time, and not always are they granted. However, that does not mean the AirAsia crew had no choice but to plow headlong into a storm. Worst-case, the crew always reserves the right to do what it needs to do, with or without permission. I cannot imagine the pilots willingly flew into what, on the radar screen, would have been a bright red splotch of potentially dangerous airspace. Perhaps a patch of weather that the pilots presumed would be manageable turned out to be otherwise? We don’t know.
Some are drawing comparisons between this incident and the 2009 Air France tragedy. They occurred under somewhat similar circumstances, and the media is eager to link these recent incidents together and wring some scary significance out of them. Some commentators have noted, for instance, that both planes were built by Airbus. I understand the temptation here, but this is extremely premature, and it’s unlikely that the aircraft model played a significant role. Remember that basically half of all the commercial jetliners in the sky are Airbus models.
An even bigger red herring is the fact that the pilots made no distress call. Several news outlets have brought this up. Effectively it means nothing. Communicating with air traffic control is pretty far down the task hierarchy when dealing with an emergency. The pilots’ priority is to control the airplane and deal with whatever malfunction or urgency is at hand. Talking to ATC comes later, if it’s practical.
So, the year appears to be closing on a tragic note. That’s a shame, seeing that 2013 was the safest year in the history of modern commercial aviation. Not to sound flip, but we can’t expect every year to be the safest, and it’s important to look at the broader context. This year will be something of a correction, but over the past ten or fifteen years the rate of fatal accidents, per miles flown, has been steadily falling. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) reports that for every million flights, the chance of a crash is one-sixth what it was in 1980, even with more than double the number of planes in the air.
Whenever people bring up the less-than-stellar accident record for 2014, I remind them of how bad things used to be. In 1985, 27 — twenty seven! — serious aviation accidents killed almost 2,500 people. That included the JAL crash outside Tokyo with 520 fatalities; the Arrow Air disaster in Newfoundland that killed 240 American servicemen, and the Air-India bombing over the North Atlantic with 329 dead. Two of history’s ten worst disasters happened within two months of each other! That’s a bad year.
Headquartered in Kuala-Lumpur, Malaysia, AirAsia is the largest low-fares airline in Asia, and one of the biggest in the world. It operates about 70 aircraft, all of them A320s, on routes around Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and beyond. (AirAsia X is the airline’s long-haul affiliate, and operates the larger A330.) I flew AirAsia between Bangkok and Phuket a few years ago. For what it’s worth, except for a delay on the outbound leg, its operation struck me as no more or less professional than that of any other major airline.
Asia, by the way, is now the world’s biggest and busiest air travel market, having surpassed both North America and Europe.
This article originally appeared at AskThePilot.com.
Read more: http://www.askthepilot.com/airasia-flight-missing/#ixzz3NQpTxsKx