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Why Airplanes Are Safe

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© Viktor Koen
Your airplane ride may be the safest part of your day.

A Perfectly Appointed Cockpit

Selecting the right pilots is key, but so is assuring that their work environment enhances their performance—even the biggest jetliners are flown from cockpits scarcely larger than the average-size car. The flight controls and displays are compact, multipurpose and tested to make sure they provide necessary information in an easy-to-see, easy-to-operate package, according to Julianne Fox Cummings, a pilot and human factors engineer who worked with Boeing on the 787 Dreamliner displays

“There’s a reason for the size, shape, placement and appearance of every control, light, switch and feature,” says Cummings. A plane flies round-the-clock, so the instruments must be visible in all light conditions. In addition, “pilots need to know that if they’ve made an input, the system has received it. They need to get feedback if they make an error. These are just some of the many things we have to consider.” Flight-deck engineers check their work by watching pilots in simulators and measuring to see that the controls are in reach, the displays in sight and the seats comfortable for long periods of time.

Passenger Cabin

How about on your side of the cockpit door? Don’t laugh, but an equal amount of attention is paid to the area where you sit. Capacious or cramped, first-class or economy, all airplane seats meet tough standards for durability and head-impact protection. The modern airliner seat can withstand 16 times the force of gravity. “That’s taking an airplane moving and suddenly putting it to a stop. The rate it is stopping is 16gs,” explains David Esse, a test engineer for MGA Engineering in Wisconsin. And seat protection doesn’t stop there. The fabrics and cushions are fire retardant and self-extinguishing, and they will not emit toxic smoke. Even the items you find in the seat back are tested to make sure they can’t become lethal. The insulation in the cabin walls is fire retardant, and, in the case of a fire, emergency lighting is close to the floor. This makes it easier to locate the exits in a smoke-filled cabin, says Boeing’s O’Donnell.

Most important to remember: Most commercial aviation accidents are not fatal. (Of the 301 accidents worldwide in the past 10 years, less than a quarter involved fatalities.) “You read about planes that lose altitude,” Esse says. “You hear about planes where the landing got botched and it slid off the runway into a pile of dirt. Very few people will die in those events.”

Air Traffic Control

The pilots and the airplanes may be the stars of the show in commercial aviation, but behind the scenes, a new, almost Star Wars–like air traffic system is being built where airplanes guided by GPS will fly self-programmed routes, communicating with each other and with the ground. This is very different from the days when maps, blackboards and pencil and paper calculations were used to direct airplanes. With more than 28 million flight departures last year, it takes a pretty sophisticated process to safely and efficiently manage a huge—and still growing—number of aircraft.

Many planes today can operate in a geographic window so exact that their horizontal position remains within “a wingspan, with vertical deviation less than the height of the tail,” says Ken Shapero, director of marketing for GE Aviation. The linking of onboard and on-the-ground systems creates highways in the sky where nobody veers out of their lanes.

“Automation determines the trajectory of the airplanes, and for the most part, air traffic controllers let the airplanes fly,” notes Steve Fulton, a former airline pilot who founded the navigation company Naverus, acquired by GE Aviation in 2009. Challenging terrain, low visibility, bad weather—the kinds of hazards that can close airports and divert airplanes—will no longer cause chaos. “It’s a whole different world,” Fulton says.

Airport Control

More visibly, profound improvements in safety can be seen right on the airport property. Movement-detection monitors show every vehicle on every runway, taxiway and terminal gate, and controllers receive warnings of potential collisions. “It is safer now than it ever has been,” says Dale Wright, chief of safety for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “It reduces risk, and that’s what it’s all about.”

Money on the Line

In 2008, commercial aviation’s global economic impact was estimated at $3.56 trillion. This reflects companies directly involved in commercial aviation and those working to apply the latest advances in science and engineering to help the industry achieve ever higher levels of safety. Clearly, a lot is riding on doing it right. So the next time the captain welcomes you aboard, you really can sit back, relax and enjoy your flight, knowing that the safest part of your trip has just begun.


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