Do Computers Make Planes Less or More Safe?

"If you were to stack up the technical documentation for an airplane, it would create a mountain of paper three times as tall as the Eiffel Tower," says Marc Diouane, a senior vice president of the American software company PTC.

For a long time, the aviation industry could safely claim that flying had indeed become safer. Year after year, millions of tourists board planes to their vacation destination without hesitation. Even passengers who are afraid to fly now believe that the most dangerous part of flying is driving to the airport.

Statisticians have computed that this saying can be taken literally. The fact that many people switched from flying to driving after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 ultimately led to more deaths on the road than in the planes used in the attacks.

"An Unparalleled Success Story"

There is currently less than one accident with fatal consequences for every million takeoffs and landings. Around 1960, at the beginning of the jet age, this figure was still at 11. If aviation were as unsafe today as it was in the 1970s, an airplane would fall from the sky once a week.

Does this mean that all is well in the world of aviation, as we board our summer vacation flights this year? There is no doubt that today's airplanes are so reliable that we tend to forget that we are sitting in an aluminum tube equipped with a full tank of kerosene and traveling at just below the speed of sound. Engine failure, one of the main causes of plane crashes in the past, is a rarity today. The pressurized cabin, hydraulic system and landing gear have become much more reliable. Computers provide advance warning of the threat of ground impact or a collision with another plane. And the guide beams in the landing system direct planes down onto the runway as if they were traveling along a chain of pearls, even in heavy fog.

"When it comes to safety, aviation is an unparalleled success story," says Stefan Levedag, director of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Braunschweig in northern Germany. But that could be history now. There were more aviation deaths in the first half of 2009 than since 2002. After the Airbus crashes of Air France over the Atlantic and Yemenia Airways off the Comoros, the number of dead passengers, 499, was about 50 percent higher than the average for the last 10 years.

Judging by the latest accident statistics, which Flight International published last week, a historic turning point has been reached. While the crash rate decreased in every decade since the days of the Wright brothers, it appears to be stagnating for the first time between 2000 and 2010. "Is safety on the slide?" the magazine asked.

A new aviation safety debate has been raging for some time among experts. "How are we supposed to improve the high level of safety even further?" Levedag asks in exasperation. For better or for worse, this is precisely what the aviation industry is condemned to do, as the number of airplanes in the sky grows rapidly and, along with it, the risk of accidents. In a recent study, a European Union advisory panel calls for reducing the accident rate in aviation by an additional 80 percent between now and 2020.

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