The combination of a mechanical fault and pilot miscommunication that lay behind the crash of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 last December represents the worst of two worlds in aviation: technical failure and human error. This week's investigative report, released by Indonesia's National Transportation Safety Committee, notes that the pilots' inability to deal with a mid-air technical fault led them to lose control of the aircraft. A chilling fact that has emerged is that the rudder system of the jet used for the doomed flight showed a fault 23 times in 12 months and, in fact, the faulty component got worse in the three months before the crash. The fault occurred four times within 40 minutes of take-off. The pilots dealt with the first three, but their attempt to correct the last one was fatally futile. The plane, which was flying from Surabaya to Singapore, crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 162 people on board.
Evidently, the fault involving the rudder was crucial to the chain of events that ended in disaster. The trend of mechanical malfunctioning should have caught the sustained attention of the maintenance authorities. Although there were apparently other factors as well that contributed to the crash - such as the inability of the pilots to handle the plane in upset conditions, or during a violent roll - the maintenance regime needs to be scrutinised closely to establish the role that it could have played.
Moving beyond the particular causes of the AirAsia crash, every accident leaves behind lessons which, if learnt and remembered, could help to prevent the next tragedy. The main lesson is the critical importance of safety based on a robust maintenance regime and the rigorous and continuous training of pilots to handle contingencies. Whether airlines abide by these standards depends in turn on a national regulatory framework that makes it impossible for operators to get away with sub-standard safety practices. That framework is likely to be a resilient one if aviation watchdogs in other countries keep it under constant scrutiny. Indonesia's air safety record and now Thailand's standards as well have drawn unfavourable international attention. Countries must step up efforts to improve standards.
For airlines, particularly low-cost carriers, the pressures of staying profitable in a competitive market must not result in cutting corners to reduce cost. Turnaround times are a matter of concern, given that budget airlines tend to use their aircraft more intensively than full-service carriers do. A British newspaper reported air traffic controllers as saying that pilots from some low-cost airlines are under such pressure to meet tight deadlines that they disobey air traffic control instructions. Such dangerous practices are likely to be stamped out if passengers make their displeasure clear by avoiding the offending airlines.