The price we pay for air safety

  • 25 March 2014
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The view from the air traffic control tower in Manchester, UK.
Image caption 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."

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?