Flying Safe on the Skyways: Tracking the Best, Worst

SUMMER'S coming in the Northern Hemisphere, and with it hordes of tourists all wanting to be somewhere else as fast as possible.

Many of them will take to the skies. Nearly 1.2 billion people travel the global skyway each year. By 2000, the number is expected to near 2 billion.

But the skies are not just filled withtourists. Business travel is soaring as borders open, trade barriers fall, and developing countries turn into tiny economic powerhouses.

And as more people travel to far points of the globe, questions are being asked about the safety of the world's airlines.

While most airlines are members of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and are required to meet its international safety standards, some don't. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), concerned about the safety of foreign airlines in the US, has determined that nearly 75 percent of those nations outside the US and Europe surveyed over the past few years fail to meet ICAO standards. Last year, 1,385 airline fatalities worldwide were attributed to human error and bad weather. Last September, the FAA barred nine countries from operating to and from the US based on numerous safety concerns; six in Latin America, three in Africa.

Problems with air travel in some other countries range from violence-ridden airports to understaffed air-control towers to insufficiently trained pilots. Sometimes the problems have political origins: With the former Soviet Union splintering, its one airline, Aeroflot, has turned into 300. And a renewed awareness of terrorism has resulted in heightened security and new inventions to protect air travellers.

In this Global Report on the world's air safety, the Monitor looks at some of the problems being faced by airlines in countries from Colombia to China, as well as a few very safe airlines.


WHILE China's flagship carrier recently celebrated 40 years of accident-free flying, China's airline industry in general has a bad safety record.

Strolling the streets of Sarajevo, Bosnia, is safer than flying inside a Chinese airplane, said the US-based International Airline Passenger Association last year. Since 1992, more than 600 people have died in crashes and 12 planes were hijacked. Yet, with some 40 to 50 million people flying each year, there are grand plans to expand the air fleet's passenger capacity.

David Learmount, operations and safety editor at Flight International magazine, says, ''They certainly know what they should be doing to develop the infrastructure, they know what equipment they need, they are beginning to obtain it, but the demand for growth is really quite fearsome.''

The demand is growing faster than the country can train pilots, engineers, and other personnel. Mr. Learmount commends the Chinese government for recognizing it. Earlier this year, the government announced it would put its regulatory hand in to slow the industry's expansion, and China is looking to the West for help. It has set up a maintenance and training joint-venture with German carrier Lufthansa. And China is increasingly sending pilots and other personnel abroad for training.

Former Soviet Union

IN its heyday, the Soviet Union's Aeroflot was unquestionably the world's largest airline. But with the Soviet breakup, Aeroflot has split into more than 300 companies. Airports throughout the countries have formed their own companies, all trying to get a piece of the pie.

But the countries' systems for keeping track of safety and maintenance of the planes are in flux, and until reforms are in place, spotty safety records have many travellers wary of contemplating travel through Russia's 11 time zones.

In 1994, 318 people died in 18 crashes in Russia. Experts from the FAA filed a joint report with their Russian counterparts calling for urgent government action to retrain personnel and improve inspections and air-traffic control. Otherwise, the report states, Russian airlines will soon fail to meet international standards.


COLOMBIAN airlines received prominent US attention when Avianca flight 52, on its way from Colombia to New York City, crashed on Long Island in January 1990. The crew had circled for two hours before running out of fuel. The crash, which killed 73 of the 158 people on board, prompted the FAA to launch an air-safety review, of Colombia and 30 developing nations.

The International Airline Passengers Association has called Colombia the second-most dangerous country to fly in, after India. The dangers the IAPA lists for Colombia are much like those in other developing countries: deficient radar and air traffic systems, insufficient maintenance inspections, questionable pilot licensing.

An additional problem is the presence of phantom flights -- drug-trafficking planes that don't communicate with civilian air-traffic controllers. And behind all of this looms the presence of a notoriously corrupt civil- aeronautics agency, experts say.

International pressure has prompted Colombia to invest $50 million for a new radar system, new navigation aids, airport security, and training for more air-traffic controllers.

The safety director for the Colombian Pilots Association, Hector Facundo, says Colombia is still reeling from the fallout of the government's ''Open Skies'' policy, which deregulated commercial aviation two years ago. Air traffic has quadrupled, he says, compounding the safety hazards that already existed.


FLYING across Africa meant high adventure for aviation's pioneers -- pilots like Beryl Markham, who winged their way across the continent in books like ''West with the Night,'' swooping down on rural outposts on the vast rolling plains.

Today, the romance has faded, perhaps nowhere more so than at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport. Officials here are anxious to clean up an image so bad that the FAA has banned Nigerian flights to the US since 1993.

Passengers complain that airline personnel seek bribes, steal luggage, overbook flights, and collude with criminals to swindle passengers. For decades, young hawker who often swindled passengers of tickets had the run of the airport. But airport officials say they're tackling the problems. Closed circuit televisions monitor all activities, and photo identification cards now limit access to the facility.


THE terrorist bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, shook the airline business -- and air travellers' confidence. Tourists abandoned holidays, planes flew half-empty. Experts were horrified that a one-pound device, hidden inside a suitcase, could wreak such damage. The crash killed 270 people.

That crash, combined with 20 years of terrorists using air travel for propaganda value, has resulted in heightened security at airports. The price of security: long check-in lines for passengers and numerous questions by agents.

A new, high-tech baggage-screen system was installed at London's Heathrow last spring. UK's airport authority, British Airports Authority, claims that this system is the first designed to automatically detect explosive materials in airline luggage. By 1996, the system will be installed to screen all hold luggage at BAA's seven airports at the cost of $250 million.

Security experts say that Heathrow's bomb-detection system is the best there is. But Heathrow is going a step further. The tiny bomb was able to destroy the plane because the suitcase it was in wound up against the wall of a cargo container, which itself was pressed against the skin of the plane. So when the bomb blew, it peeled off the side of the aircraft.

A British firm Royal Ordnance is now putting the finishing touches on last-resort protection: a bomb-proof cargo container. With the container now going through final testing, Royal Ordnance is shopping around for a manufacturer.

Asian carriers have already expressed interest -- Garuda Indonesia wants to outfit its entire fleet -- but financially shaky American and European carriers are less enthusiastic about it.


THE one and only hijacking of an El Al jet was in 1968, but it was the beginning of a string of terrorist attacks. As a result, Israel's national airlines developed its reputation for tough-as-nails security procedures.

El Al keeps its security measures secret, but it's common knowledge that the airline spends more per passenger mile on security than any other airline in the world. That protection includes reinforced cargo holds, and reportedly pressurized chambers where bags are put before loading onto a flight, to guard against altimeter-triggered bombs.

The airline's security staff is recruited from the elite of Israel's armed forces. And they take no chances. Recently, El Al suspended service to Russia after its security staff in Moscow and St. Petersburg was ordered to surrender its weapons.

''Looking at what the rest of the world is doing, you can see that more and more countries are taking such measures... I can say it about Britain, the Japanese, the Russians,'' says Menachem Sharon, director general of Israel's Civil Aviation Administration.

Mr. Sharon says his chief worry these days is airlines coming from the former Soviet Union and the new republics -- each with its own aviation authority.

''The basic standards, they are not the same as the Western standards. We had already at least two occasions in which pilots flying over Israel got lost. We couldn't speak with them in English.''

Looking ahead

ON Aug. 31, 1983, the pilot of a Korean Airlines jumbo jet entered a small error into the plane's navigation system. That small error ended up destroying the plane: It was shot down when it flew over Soviet airspace, killing all 269 passengers.

Two weeks after the KAL disaster, President Reagan declared that signals from the global-positioning system (GPS), a satellite navigation network being launched by the United States Department of Defense, would be made available to the world. Previously, it had been a military secret.

Pilots now use GPS to prevent the kind of mistakes that put KAL into harm's way. It hasn't become universally accepted yet -- the goal is still two years away in the US.

The international airline industry estimates that the improved routing possible with GPS could save air carriers $5 billion a year. Over the next decade, it could also help shorten flight times and make flying to remote places significantly safer.

Experts say developing nations -- where radar coverage is spotty and air crashes more frequent -- may benefit most from GPS. Fiji already allows pilots to rely on just GPS. After Fiji installed GPS receivers on all commercial planes, pilots stopped getting lost on flights between its small, widely scattered islands. Fiji no longer requires planes to carry fuel for a return trip, so they can now carry more paying passengers or cargo.

Reported by Monitor correspondents and contributors Jennifer Glasse in China and Russia, Kirk Nielsen in Colombia, Meghan Cox Gurdon in England, Patricia Golan in Israel, Joyce Hackel in Nigeria, and Jim Polson in the United States. Written by staff writer Catherine Foster in Boston.

* The material in this article is based on a series that aired on Monitor Radio April 10 to 14.

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