Uneasy about airline safety

Last year’s safety figures confirmed a trend that was becoming established over the last five years: airline safety has stopped improving, something it never did before since the Wright Brothers.

This year’s serious occurrences show no sign that this is changing for the better.

Another unwelcome fact is that more accidents are happening to aircraft registered in a country that has, on average over the decades, the world’s best safety rates: the USA. That country has now suffered four serious accidents this year so far, three of them fatal. The non-fatal accident – the US Airways Hudson River ditching - can be statistically ignored in this argument because birdstrikes that cause total power loss are not only rare, but they are what insurers would call “acts of God” – there is no protection against them and they could happen to anyone. But three fatal airline accidents in less than three months is not good for US carriers by today’s expected standards.

In February we saw the Colgan Air Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 crash on approach to Buffalo; and now in the last two days we have seen a chartered Pilatus PC-12 come down just short of Butte, Montana killing all on board; and finally at Tokyo Narita a FedEx Boeing MD-11F has killed both its pilots – the only people on board, in a horrific crash in which crosswind and windshear seem likely to have played a major part. My colleague Kieran Daly has listed the numerous chillingly similar occurrences that have affected MD-11s and its predecessor the DC-10 series in his blog Unusual Attitude.

Only a couple of years ago it was possible to say that serious airline accidents nowadays are happening only to second- or third-tier airlines in countries whose safety record had never been particularly good. It is no longer possible to make that claim.


3 Responses to Uneasy about airline safety

  1. Long Dong 24 March, 2009 at 1:56 pm #

    Probably not really fair to line the Montana crash up with public transport ones. From what I can tell Montana was a private operation. The FAA is terrible at private flying oversight (Part 91)

  2. Davd Nicholas 24 March, 2009 at 3:28 pm #

    Readers of this thread should also see “Distractions frequently cause flapless take-offs, NASA reveals” which highlights something that I mentioned on this blog as a possible contributor to the Spanair accident. Before the advent of glass cockpits a third pilot or flight engineer formed part of the standard crew complement of many if not most medium to large aircraft, and one of the advantages of this third pair of eyes and ears was that the P3 or F/E could attend to most of the unexpected distractions that, by continuing to arise, now divert the attention and thought processes of the first and second pilots (sometimes at safety-critical moments). The (entirely cost-driven) elimination of the third pilot or flight engineer has its equivalent (as a trend) in the reductions in ATC assistants and support staff, crew briefing facilities, traffic dispatchers(weight and balance specialists) and other aspects of airline operations which previously helped the pilots (and ATC controllers) to do their jobs by ensuring that everything else was done properly and professionally.
    The ancient adage “Safety is no accident” goes back to the earliest days of commercial aviation, but is no less true today. Another, that “if you think safety is expensive you should try having an accident”, is being rediscovered by an increasing number airline managements and accountants around the world.
    As gravity is the final arbiter in aviation, it should not be undertaken with safety being just one among a number of competing priorities. If this ultimately requires a less competitive environment, where operators (and providers of ATC services) do not have their safety responsibilities subverted by cost pressures, then the regulatory framework should offer them the necessary support.
    It is not surprising that the trend towards safer flight operations appears to have reversed, and it may not be coincidence that this has become evident since the beginning of the global economic downturn. I anticipate that should one of the “big two” european low-cost carriers have a major accident where a contributory link is found to their particular business model, public reaction may be one of horrified realisation that aviation safety costs money.

  3. Ross 3 February, 2010 at 2:20 pm #

    I believe it’s still just as safe as ever to fly. With the introduction of new routes and short-haul carriers, there are more flights than ever taking place.

    Choosing an airline is an interesting factor, as there’s a host of regional, european airlines that have not had a fatality in the last 20 years, such as British Airways and EasyJet etc.