Despite a strong safety culture, accident rate must improve to avoid more deaths. Ask an airline chief what his or her number one priority is, and the reply will probably be: 'Safety'. It certainly should be. While they struggle with all the other priorities, from service standards to costs and from alliances to yields, airline managers must never forget their ultimate responsibility - the lives of their passengers.

The modern-day reality is that most airlines are operated as businesses. They have to satisfy shareholders, which means a greater emphasis on profitability, balance-sheet health and financial value than ever before. Everything, including financial investments, pay rises and service improvements, must be done without compromising the bottom line. Productivity and profits rule.

There is, of course, a danger here. Safety costs money. Aviation is already a highly safe mode of transport, so further improvements will be very tough - or, in other words, very expensive.

To suggest that airlines compromise on safety to cut costs would be an absurd oversimplification, and in the vast majority of cases would simply be untrue. Nevertheless, there is a natural tension between the laudable objective of saving money and the imperative aim of saving lives.

As an industry, the airline business needs to watch out. When an aircraft comes to grief, hundreds of people may lose their lives. Millions of TVviewers and newspaper readers worldwide are subjected to harrowing pictures and words describing the carnage, and speculations on the cause. Even leaving moral responsibilities aside, the damage done to the industry's public image is beyond calculation.

And the stark truth is that things are going to get worse. A strong safety culture in civil aviation has resulted in an extremely low accident rate. But that rate - measured in accidents per passenger km - has remained essentially steady on a global scale during the last 10 years. Every year, around 1,300 people die in air crashes.

Air transport activity is forecast to double by the year 2011, or thereabouts. If the accident rate remains constant, simple arithmetic shows that by then the death toll will average 2,600 people a year. On average, this implies one extremely serious accident every month.

Such a gloomy prognosis is clearly unacceptable to consumers, politicians and the aviation industry itself. No wonder so much soul-searching is going on, with a spate of books and documentaries on air safety and the US administration working towards a politically inspired objective of 'zero accidents'.

The financial and political complexities of improving aviation safety rates are extremely challenging. The Federal Aviation Administration's programme for assessing foreign government's safety oversight systems has created enormous bad feeling, and some carriers have suffered serious commercial damage. Getting a government off the Category II or III list has often been extremely challenging. Now, a global safety oversight programme is mooted.

But some safety problems are much closer to home from the US point of view. The ValuJet crash cast a shadow over low-cost airlines and outsourcing, resulting in tougher regulation. But don't passengers miss those low fares?

Then there is the aftermath of TWA Flight 800. Despite one of the most comprehensive accident investigations ever, the precise reason for the fuel-tank explosion which downed the Boeing 747 off Long Island in July 1996 may never be known. But the National Transportation Safety Board recommendations for preventing a recurrence have led to widespread controversy, with opposition from the industry and the FAA.

The NTSB proposals, which include pumping an inert gas instead of flammable air to replace burnt fuel in aircraft tanks, would cost airlines billions of dollars. They and the FAA argue that the benefits are unproven, and they suggest that new safety risks could even be introduced.

A discussion about such issues quickly leads to the most sensitive questions of all. How do you value a human life? If a new safety initiative will cost $1 billion and might save 300 lives over 30 years, is it worth it? Suppose the imposition of this measure results in airlines cutting corners elsewhere, resulting in the loss of 300 lives in a completely different accident?

There is no simple answer for one simple reason: a human being cannot be replaced, so his or her real value is infinite. All the air transport business and its regulators can do is to leave no stone unturned in their efforts to improve safety.

There is no point in making changes that have no real effect, but the industry cannot use cost as an excuse for not taking initiatives which will bring down the accident rate. If this industry is to prosper and retain a clear conscience, changes are vital.

Source: Airline Business