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If Concorde crashes, how safe are others?

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Issue 1708

After Air France disaster

If Concorde crashes, how safe are others?

BRITISH AIRWAYS’ fleet of seven Concordes has suffered 12 blown tyres since 1988. That is the disturbing figure quoted by a BA executive in the aftermath of the tragedy that saw 114 people killed when an Air France Concorde crashed last week. Investigators believe that debris from one or more blown tyres at take-off ruptured fuel lines, causing a fire and downing the plane.

Concorde has always been held up as very safe compared to other planes. Now a history of faults in this exclusive aircraft has surfaced. Concorde’s tyres have to take immense pressure as the supersonic plane takes off. As far back as 1979 the manufacturers and the authorities knew of blow-out problems.

  • 1979: The tyres of an Air France Concorde burst on take off at Dulles airport in Washington. Fragments of metal from the twisted wheel pierced the wings and fuel tanks.
  • 1979: A tyre blew again on an Air France Concorde.
  • 1980: A tyre blew on a British Airways Concorde at Dulles, damaging the engine and fuselage.
  • 1981: Another Concorde tyre blew at Dulles. One engine had to be shut down.
  • 1981: A captain of a BA flight at New York halted a take off after debris from a burnt tyre punctured the fuel tank.

In 1981 the US authorities recommended new procedures to deal with blow-outs. Concorde’s tyres were strengthened. But the new design did not stop all tyre bursts. In 1993 a tyre blew on a BA Concorde landing at Heathrow. Concorde tyres burst on average once a year. Last week’s disaster shows that these bursts can have fatal consequences.

Hiding truth

DOUBTS OVER Concorde safety have been kept from the British public because of our lax regulation rules. Over the past two years the British Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has been forced by law to pass safety warnings to the US government. So the US knew about problems with the plane’s Rolls Royce Olympus engines. But there was no such law forcing the CAA to tell the British public.

CAA reports handed to the US showed that it had carried out a series of investigations after it received reports of “circumferential cracks” in the metal rings that cool Concorde’s engines. It also discovered cracks elsewhere in the plane’s engines that were causing “significant damage” to the turbines, which could cause an engine fire.

‘Railtrack in the sky’

CONCORDE IS a high prestige aircraft used by the rich and famous and by top executives. BA and Air France therefore have an interest in making special efforts to ensure the plane is safe.

So if Concorde can’t be trusted, what about routine passenger flights? Airline spokespeople insist that air travel is completely safe. But figures show that the longest period without a fatal airliner accident in the past 50 years is just 61 days.

Mile for mile air travel is much safer that other forms of transport. But on a journey for journey basis the picture is reversed. Fatalities per 100 million passenger journeys are, on average, 55 for aircraft, 4.5 for cars and 2.7 for trains. Recent crashes this year include:

  • 17 July 2000: An Air Alliance 737 crashes into a housing estate in Patna, India, killing 49 people
  • 1 February 2000: All 88 passengers and crew die when an Alaskan Airways flight crashes into the Pacific off California.
  • 30 January 2000: A Kenya Airways jet crashes into the sea off Ivory Coast, killing all 35 on board.

Pressure to cut corners in this cutthroat business-in both airline manufacture and safety-is enormous. Yet governments cosy up to big corporations such as Boeing. New Labour recently promised British Aerospace 530 million to make an airbus that has two decks, one being for luxury use for the rich. And the government is still ploughing ahead with the privatisation of air traffic control, creating a “Railtrack in the sky”.

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