The crash of Germanwings flight 9525 and the loss of 150 passengers and crew on Tuesday has put aviation safety under renewed scrutiny.
Despite robust figures showing rising safety standards in the aviation industry – 2014 was the safest year on record so far, according to the International Air Transport Association – such tragedies spark rising levels of insecurity among passengers, and pose difficult questions for the airline sector.
Part of the bewilderment and shock at Tuesday’s tragedy comes from the ordinary circumstances of the flight, which aircraft investigators are still probing at the crash site in southern France.
“It is inexplicable this could happen to a plane free of technical problems and with an experienced, Lufthansa-trained pilot,” Carsten Spohr, head of Germanwings’ parent Lufthansa, said.
The plane involved was the well-respected A320 model, manufactured by aerospace giant Airbus, one of the most popular planes in the sector.
“There are thousands of A320s used around the world and they have a good safety record considering how many there are and how many flight miles they have done,” Irwin Mitchell partner Jim Morris, a former RAF pilot, said.
The A320 family of aircraft, dubbed the “Ford Focus” of the aviation industry for their ubiquity and reliability, have been involved in 11 fatal crashes since their introduction in 1988, making it one of the safest planes currently flying the skies.
For Lufthansa, which launched Germanwings in 2002 to compete with budget rivals such as easyJet and Ryanair, the tragedy marks the latest challenge following a bout of industrial action by pilots this year.
Despite the tragic setback, negative sentiment towards the aviation industry in the wake of an air disaster does not linger, Paul Hayes, safety director at aviation consultants Ascend, said.
“Brands of the airlines and manufacturers involved normally see a loss of value on their shares. This happens every time, but it’s transitory. In a more general sense you get passengers avoiding flying on Germanwings and flying on Airbuses but it’s a small percentage and it lasts a few days or maximum a couple of weeks and then it fades.”
Yet, despite robust safety standards across the industry, engineers say more sophisticated technology exists which could improve plane safety – but which have so far not been used.
“There’s always room for improvement,” says Philippa Oldham, head of transport at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers “You can improve the system over time with things like active control monitoring systems, which will give you better instrumentation.”
However, Hayes adds that aviation safety standards are outpacing the expansion of the industry itself. “Despite such high-profile accidents, and accidents where you get two or three in close proximity, air safety is improving considerably.”