Learning Lab Denmark - INCUBEus

A. Air Transport

Aircraft and airline industries belong to the more successful industries in terms of safety. The systems are tightly coupled, which translates into a high catastrophic potential, but safety has continued to increase over the years.

Perrow (1984/1999) claims that there are structural explanations for the high levels of safety in the industry. Most importantly, experience is accumulated due to the thousands of flights everyday. Secondly, the industry has a personal reference at stake, because politicians and other members of the elite all fly.

Unlike nuclear accidents, the victims of a plane crash are not anonymous. Public reaction appears to be stronger when the victims are identifiable (passenger lists) rather than random (individuals living nearby a chemical plant). This partly explains why no other industry is so well-positioned to effectively pursue safety: it gets immediate results of safety efforts in terms of passenger flow - in contrast to other industries, where safety efforts don't pay immediately.

When the system is security-checked and highly automatic - what is then left to cause accidents? Most of the accidents occur due to human error. Over the years, production pressures have increased, resulting in burnt-out pilots. This in turn leads to human errors. In one study the researchers identified one error every five minutes, most of them small and insignificant. In case of accidents, the rate of human error is 50 to 70 percent.

Another reason for accidents is the tight coupling of the system. Perrow mentions a flight where a small fire in the electric bundle behind a coffee machine caused an electric chain reaction, which forced the plane to perform an emergency landing. It is difficult to predict and respond to such errors.

According to Slovic (Slovic 2000) the perceived benefit of air transport technologies is more than four times higher than the perceived risk. Furthermore, people tend to be more positive towards risks that they are voluntarily exposed to.

Further reading
Perrow, C. (1999). Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, pp. 123-170, Princeton University Press.

Slovic, P. (2000). The Perception of Risk, Earthscan.

Comment this page

Nine Technologies

A. Air Transport
B. Buildings
C. Land Transport
D. Marine Transport
E. Bridges and Dams
F. Oil Tankers
G. Chemical Industry
H. Medical Industry
I. Nuclear Industry

Nine Theories

Quantitative Risk Assessment
Decision Analysis
Cost-benefit Analysis
Normal Accident Theory
High Reliability Organisations
Risk communication
Arena Theory
Cultural Theory

Five Categories

Hazard (0-1000)
Range (km2)
Fear Factor (0-10)
Media Effect (0-100)