Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ryanair's latest wheeze

Ryanair has announced it would like to dispense with co-pilots on its short-haul flights. This is a curious idea, which O'Leary characteristically justifies with an inappropriate analogy - that train drivers don't have co-pilots but if one had a heart attack that would be dangerous too. “In 25 years with over about 10m flights, we’ve had one pilot who suffered a heart attack in flight and he landed the plane” he adds, and anyway “the computer does most of the flying now”.

It's true that modern planes have a range of computerized aids to pilots, and that most of the time the second pilot is redundant. In fact, air safety is based precisely on the concept of multiple redundancy, to ensure that if something goes wrong, there is a mechanism to prevent this leading to a crash. So, for instance, if pilots fail to open the flaps before take-off, a warning should sound telling them the aircraft isn't configured for take-off (the failure of this warning to sound after pilots missed the flaps caused the Spanair crash in Madrid two years ago). Having two pilots is supposed to ensure that checklists are rigorously used to avoid such errors, but it is true to say that most of the time the plane won't crash even if the pilots don't run the checklists properly - the  computerized warnings provide redundancy.

So O'Leary thinks that we can do without redundancy. This would inevitably lead to more accidents, since humans make mistakes. And mistakes when you are flying a lump of metal at hundreds of miles an hour through crowded skies are probably worth avoiding. Of course, air travel is safe precisely because people insist - not entirely rationally - on higher standards of safety when flying than they do when driving a car or crossing the road. Maybe he's right that we could cope with higher levels of risk when flying, to save some money. After all, the logical extension of the low-cost strategy, when you dispense with free drinks and named seats, is to push on towards paying for toilets, standing passengers, and various other reductions in quality. So why not lower safety standards? (Maybe the passengers sitting in the centre of the plane could be asked to check whether the flaps are open to the correct setting?) After all, you're still highly likely to get out of the plane alive.

This could be the new frontier of low-cost air travel.