Whether we like it or not, air travel is being dragged into a new era by social media and new technology. It’s not just the internet that has transformed travel and the way we pay for it, but social media like Twitter is transforming the whole travel experience.
Even in the past month, the immediacy and ubiquity of social media has caused a minor revolution inside the organisation responsible for the safety of the world’s biggest airline industry.
Rather than resist the explosion of media and technology, the US National Transportation Safety Board earlier this month created a precedent after the Asiana air crash in San Francisco by short-circuiting the normal bureaucratic secrecy surrounding such events, declaring its allegiance was to the travelling public.
Because anyone with a phone, a Twitter account and a Facebook page is now a publisher, the thirst for information about the event was irresistible and would have been discussed across the airwaves regardless of what the NTSB decided to do.
So the NTSB decided to release the technical information about the crash so at least the public would be discussing accurate information.
The NTSB’s action upset the pilots unions, but, in a “first” for such safety organisations around the world, NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman expounded what amounts to a new doctrine that spells out the place of air travel consumers in its responsbilities.
“One of the hallmarks of the NTSB is our transparency,” Hersman said. “We work for the travelling public. There are a lot of organisations and groups that have advocates. We are the advocate for the travelling public.
“We believe it’s important to show our work and tell people what we are doing.”
The pressure for immediate disclosure of all the facts to do with the incident was immense, particularly when even passengers on the Asiana plane were in contact with the outside world moments after the Boeing 777 ploughed into the runway at San Francisco International Airport on July 6, putting emergency services under pressure over their response to the accident.
Needless to say, it was only a matter of time before someone came forward with a video recording of the crash itself since every mobile phone these days is a recording device.
Sixteen days later, when a Southwest Airlines 737 crash-landed at New York’s La Guardia airport, there was a comprehensive video record of the event from a distance and from passenger phones inside the plane.
Once again, the NTSB was quick to release technical information about the incident to at least counteract uninformed public discussion.
There’s no doubt these worldwide trends are putting pressure on our own air safety investigators in Australia, with both the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and the Australian Transport Safety Board under pressure from a Senate committee about their performance.
The ATSB is currently involved in a vital investigation that affects large numbers of air travellers following the diversion of two 737 jets to a small country airport in June because of fog.
One of the planes used up all of its margin for error when it set down at Mildura airport with only 10 to 15 minutes fuel left in its tanks. The ATSB is investigating how airline fuel policies or inadequate regulations could have led to such a potentially dangerous situation.
We’re in a new world, not only of accountability, but of safety expectations that is utterly different from the dark past. Thirty years ago, though Australia was cocooned from it, hardly a month went by without a major air disaster somewhere in the world – and at least one disaster a year was in the US.
Now, almost all of the small number of airline accidents each year are in the developing world. Among the handful of accidents in the developed world, the trend of the past decade has been toward accident survivability.
In 2005, an Air France Airbus A340 was destroyed at Toronto airport in Canada in what was widely dubbed a miracle when no-one died. Even this month’s crash at San Francisco airport was extraordinary for the number of people who walked away from it, with just three fatalities.
What do you think of people Tweeting and Instagramming air emergencies even when they're passengers? Do you think social media scrutiny of incidents like the Asiana and Southwest crash landings are a good thing or a bad thing? Post your comments below.