The price we pay for air safety

The view from the air traffic control tower in Manchester, UK. Air travel has become considerably safer over the last 20 years

Despite the tragedy of flight MH370, world air travel is safe. In fact, it may be too safe, according to the Center for Global Development's Charles Kenny.

Government air travel regulations impose a high cost on any airlines that want to fly to the US, including some requirements - such as on-board defibrillators - that are expensive but save relatively few lives.

"There are clear benefits to this process, safer air travel chief among them," he writes in Business Week. "But the unintended consequences also suggest that exporting American regulations around the world could cost more lives than it saves."

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International regulations mean lower profits for Kenya Airways and less tax revenue for the Kenyan government”

End Quote Charles Kenny Center for Global Development

He cites a study that shows the cost per life-year saved of defibrillators is $100,000 (£60,500). He compares that with the $7 (£4.25) per life-year cost for vaccinations in developing countries.

Connecting the two takes a bit of logical gymnastics, but here's the crux of his argument:

If Kenya Airways wasn't spending the money putting defibrillators in its jets that fly to the US, it probably wouldn't use the savings to fund a vaccination program. But it might lower the cost of travel to and from Kenya, which would enable more people to travel, in turn increasing all the benefits that travel can bring - tourism dollars, trade, and investment. As it is, the international regulations mean lower profits for Kenya Airways and less tax revenue for the Kenyan government - which really might spend some of that on vaccinations.

Christian Wolmar on the Guardian's website notes that when he was a transportation correspondent 20 years ago, "air disasters outside Europe generated little media interest because they were relatively frequent and generally thought to be inevitable; a price that had to be paid for our mobility".

He notes that some "safety analysts" at the time predicted that increased traffic would mean a plane crash a week by 2010.

"In fact, safety has improved to such a degree that crashes of jets run by established European, American and Asian operators are relatively rare, and attract the kind of blanket coverage accorded to the demise of flight MH370," he writes.

He attributes the improved safety to more reliable planes, better regulations and smarter safety procedures.

With the apparent loss of the Malaysia Airlines jet, there have already been calls to increase spending on global air transportation infrastructure.

Conde Naste Traveler's Clive Irving, for instances, urges more airlines to use live satellite streaming technology to send flight information to air traffic controllers - at an estimated cost of $1,500 a month per plane.

"Aviation safety experts are in no doubt that eventually every airplane should have this system, but how long is 'eventually', given the reluctance of manufacturers, airlines and regulators?" he asks.

Can we afford to ease some government regulation for air travel? Could our money really be better spent elsewhere?



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  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Spending disproportionate resources on air safety is understandable - it works economically because air travel is a luxury item and the relatively small marginal costs can be transferred to the end user who is happy to pay. However, since 8th March, ca. 3 million people have died - governments should act more rationally and focus on preventing "boring" deaths rather than rare emotive ones.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    What the article does not take into account is the negative effects on an economy if air safety is reduced.

    There has to be a direct correlation between safety and the willingness of people to fly. Therefore if safety reduces so do the number of people flying.

    This then translates into reduced overall world GDP, and a reduction of the transfer of capital from rich to poor countries via tourism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    The reason so much more gets spent on air safety is because improving safety is generally relatively straight forward, a government can legislate, and they don't bear the cost, they get some good headlines for "doing somthing" then they can forget about it for a few years till the next "Big" accident.

    Things that require complex solutions are of course, ignored, as it's just too hard.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    As an airline passenger and private pilot, airline & commercial aircraft manufacturer regulations make total sense.
    However the same regulations are applied to all manufactured aircraft, making smaller aircraft ridiculously expensive and perpetuating old technology.
    E.g. most light aircraft engines were designed during WW2 and have not altered since due to the cost of certifying new engine types.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    13. Gotty "According to online ads and articles - an approved & advanced aircraft defibrillator costs $2000. Crew training is $300 per person"

    Which is an interesting figure, given that public access defibrillators are designed so that even untrained bystanders can use them. Sounds like the training companies are raking it in.


Comments 5 of 57


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