Airline travel requires passengers to make a leap of faith, entrusting their lives to pilots, airlines, air traffic controllers and others who regulate air travel.
Even after a week of multiple tragedies in worldwide aviation, "There isn't much that we can do to manipulate how we fly as passengers. But we also shouldn't worry too much," says Phil Derner, founder of the aviation enthusiast website NYC Aviation.
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With one passenger plane being shot out of the sky and two crashing during storms, aviation experts said there was no pattern suggesting a huge gap in airline safety measures.
"One of things that makes me feel better when we look at these events is that if they all were the same type event or same root cause. Then you would say there's a systemic problem here, but each event is unique," said Jon Beatty, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, an airline industry-supported nonprofit in Alexandria, Virginia, that promotes global aviation safety.
Less than 1 in 2 million flights last year ended in an accident that damaged a plane beyond repair, according to the International Air Transport Association. The statistic includes accidents involving cargo and charter airlines in its data as well as scheduled passenger airline flights. This week's aviation disasters have the potential to push airline fatalities this year to over 700 deaths — the most since 2010. And 2014 is still barely half over.
The misfortunes began July 18 when Malaysia Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine with 298 people on board. It's still uncertain who fired the missile that destroyed the plane, but Ukrainian officials have blamed ethnic Russian rebels, and U.S. officials have pointed to circumstantial evidence that suggests that may be the case.
Global aviation leaders will meet in Montreal next week to initiate discussions on a plan to address safety and security issues raised by the shoot-down of the Malaysia Airlines jet, an aviation official said late Thursday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue publicly by name.
The shoot-down doubled Malaysia Airlines' losses this year. The mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370 with 239 people on board in March combined with the destruction of Flight 17 amount to more than twice the total global airline fatalities in all of last year, which was the industry's safest year on record. Ascend, a global aviation industry consulting firm headquartered in London, counts 163 fatalities in 2013 involving passenger-carrying airliners with 14 seats or more.
On Wednesday, a TransAsia Airways plane crashed in Taiwan in stormy weather trailing a typhoon, killing 48 passengers, injuring 10 passengers and crew, and injuring five more people on the ground.
The next day an Air Algerie flight with 116 passengers and crew disappeared in a rainstorm over Mali while en route from Burkina Faso to Algeria's capital. The plane's wreckage was later found near Mali's border with Burkina Faso. The plane was operated for the airline by Swiftair, a Spanish carrier.
Derner said passengers can't do much about the path of their flights, and should leave it to aviation officials to learn the right lessons from the downing of the Malaysian flight.
For all that is out of the passengers' control, though, there are still steps that travelers can take to be well informed, select solid airlines and practice good safety habits.
TRACKING FLIGHTS: FlightAware.com can show what path a specific flight has flown the past few days, which can give passengers an idea of what to expect on their own flight. However, flight plans typically aren't loaded until an hour or two before a flight, and change all the time. Within the United States, passengers can track a flight's planned path with the WindowSeat flight tracker app: http://download.cnet.com/WindowSeat-Lite-Flight-Tracker-Timer/3000-20428_4-75503094.html
SAFETY RECORDS: AirSafe.com offers airline-by-airline and model-by-model information on fatal plane crashes and other fatal events. It also shows crashes by regions of the world. Aviation-safety.net, a service of the Flight Safety Foundation, lists recent safety problems, offers information on emergency exits and other safety information, and has a database of safety issues stretching back to 1921.
ASSESSING THE AIRLINE: The European Union keeps a list of airlines that are prohibited from flying there. If an airline makes that list, avoid it. http://ec.europa.eu/transport/modes/air/safety/air-ban/index_en.htm . It's also a good idea to see if a carrier is a member of the International Air Transport Association, the trade association for the world's airlines. If they're not, they might not have met the group's safety standards. http://www.iata.org/about/members/pages/airline-list.aspx
GOOD HABITS: AirSafe.com, run by former Boeing safety engineer Todd Curtis, offers 10 tips for safe flight. These include choosing larger aircraft and nonstop flights. Once onboard: listen to the safety briefing, keep overhead bins free of heavy items, keep seatbelts fastened during flight, listen to flight attendants, don't bring hazardous materials, let flight attendants pour any hot drinks, don't drink too much and keep your wits about you. http://www.airsafe.com/ten_tips.htm