Statistically speaking, air travel these days is much safer than any other form of transport on a pure accident and mortality rate per load of passengers basis. It’s arguably (I’d say most definitely) safer than it has ever been. If you factor in the sheer number of passengers that now pass through airport turnstiles (I know they’re not really turnstiles, humor me) and the distance that they travel, air travel is actually twice as safe as it was at a similar point in time ten years ago. But cold, hard numbers do not really serve to reassure the jittery hearts of travelers that still take to air travel with a sense of trepidation. No mater how brave you are, if you have traveled by air at some point, the odd noise coming from the engine or the shudder and groan of the monocoque as it takes off is bound to leave you scared. So when you hear of an exploding Rolls Royce engine, it scares the hell out of you.
Never mind the fact that it was a rare incident, it only takes one of its kind to strike fear into the hearts of globetrotters everywhere. On November 4th, when one of Qantas’ Airbus A380 superjumbo’s had to return to base shortly after taking off thanks to reports of an exploding engine, hearts were set aflutter everywhere. The truth, as is so often the case, was far less interesting and far more rational. One of the Rolls Royce engine had indeed suffered a failure. This by itself was not such a large incident; it is a known fact that large passenger airliners can carry on even on three engines even during such a power-intensive stage such as takeoff. And mind you, the largest risk posed by an engine failure is during takeoff, so if things were still good to go, then there wasn’t a whole lot to worry about.
No, the Rolls Royce engine failure wasn’t the headline grabber. What was worrying was the fact that components of the engine flew out of the engine at very high speed, causing an as yet undisclosed amount of damage to the wings. A catastrophic tragedy was avoided, but the nature of the incident raises a whole lot of questions, and not just for the British behemoth that is Rolls Royce, but for the aviation industry at large. Rolls Royce itself has remained annoyingly tight lipped about the incident, almost as if they are an adopting an approach similar to that of an ostrich with its head in the sand. The firm has put out a statement, albeit a very brief one.
In a way, that is understandable in that investigators and aviation regulatory authorities need to get on with their work and find out the cause of the incident. But Rolls Royce has a history of being mum on such incidents. Think back to the crash landing of a British Airways flight two years ago at Heathrow and you might remember Rolls Royce’s reticence even then. The firm needs to understand that it is a top-notch brand and it also needs to understand with the internet as it is, similar such incidents of Rolls Royce engine failure will come to light. At one time, Rolls Royce could get away with it. The market was dominated by sellers, not buyers. But that is no longer the case.
It needs to be accountable for its engines, and they might be making bigger engines, more fuel efficient engines, but they are also testing the limits of engineering, and sometimes breaking them. There are boundaries to be drawn and risks to be understood and discussed, many pertaining to costs, risks, efficiency and their correlation. The time to stay mum has gone. The time for discussion is now.