How safe is your next flight?
T3 investigates the tech advancements keeping the birds in the sky
As you sit on the tarmac with seat and tray table in an upright and locked position, you could be forgiven for thinking that the risks involved in getting 300 tonnes of metal up to 35,000 feet were innumerable. Not so. In fact, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), there are just seven deadly threats to worry about.
These, since you’re now wondering, include a runwayrelated accident, a controlled flight into terrain, fire, turbulence, system failure and “unknowns” – okay, that one’s quite open ended. Yet, while rare, the most common cause of fatalities is actually loss of control in-flight.
“This can include stalls, icing, flight control system failures or structural failures,” explains Todd Curtis, an aviation safety specialist who now runs the AirSafe.com Foundation. “There are cockpit warning systems in place to guard against this, though, like stall warnings for pilots.”
There is little use in warning systems if nobody’s awake to spot them, of course. According to the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA), half the pilots interviewed in their 2013 safety survey believed tiredness was the biggest threat to flight safety. Incredibly, the survey of 500 pilots revealed that over half had fallen asleep in flight and, more worryingly, 29 per cent had opened their eyes to find their co-pilot asleep beside them. This is where the third pilot, “George”, comes in handy – aka the autopilot.
“If a crew becomes incapacitated, the plane will continue to fly on its pre-programmed course,” confirms David Ison, who has worked as a flight instructor with major airlines and is now assistant professor at EmbryRiddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “In the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the plane should have continued towards Beijing. Once it arrived there it would have flown straight ahead until it reached its last flight plan waypoint, or until it ran out of fuel.”
But even if you put two fully rested pilots in a serviced plane, you are still unable to legislate against sabotage. Of the 46 western-built jet airliners that have crashed in the en-route phase, as flight MH370 is believed to have at time of press, 18 were caused by acts of sabotage. And, in a disturbing twist, it’s been proven recently that terrorists no longer need to even be on a plane to bring it down.
“It’s possible to cyber-hijack a plane,” reveals security consultant and former pilot Hugo Teso, who last year demonstrated how to hack straight into a Boeing’s Flight Management System (FMS) using an Android phone and an app, PlaneSploit, that’s been three years in development. “There’s a system on the majority of wide-bodied jets that, at present, has no security, so you can upload data and the plane assumes the messages are valid. You can use these to trigger vulnerabilities ranging from taking over the autopilot to making oxygen masks drop down.
“The only positive is that these abilities are still in the hands of ‘white hat’ hackers, who are sharing the information with manufacturers and running on-board system audits to come up with next-gen security.”
There is currently no sure-fire way to protect against these remote threats, but flying remains the least risky way to travel thanks to a host of security measures already in place, dedicated to keeping the birds in the sky. Let us calm your nerves, with a pre-flight tech check…
A whole lot can go wrong at 35,000 feet: T3 helpfully maps out the potential threats