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By Murray Bourne, 15 Feb 2005

What price safety?

United flight 811 out of Honolulu on 24 Feb 1989 lost a cargo door while on climb through 22000'. This caused a large rip in the side of the aircraft and 9 passengers died.

The National Geographic doco on the incident was scathing in its attack on the US NTSB (National Transportation & Safety Board), since it covered up the vital issue of the cargo door fasteners on the 747 being inadequate. The persistence of the parents of one of the lost passengers (an engineer from New Zealand) finally forced the truth out of Boeing and the NTSB: Revised NTSB report.

Some comments:

  • Don't believe all you read
  • The comment made by one passenger, an aviation lawyer, was chilling - "The airline industry is willing to sacrifice a plane and a few hundred passengers every now and then - it is the cost of business." This followed the revelation that Beoing was aware of the door problem and had instructed owners to fit stronger catches but gave them years to do so (this was subsequently reduced to 30 days after the flight 811 incident).
  • The National Geographic doco was made by Canadians - I imagine if it was by a USA team it would not have been so critical.
  • Safety and risk are difficult to quantify - look at 9/11. But it is a very interesting field of applied mathematics. Again I say, what price safety?

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