Where’s the safety incentive when accidents don’t happen?

Global airline accident statistics for the first six months of this year are staggeringly good – if you don’t include MH370.

And for the purposes of this argument I am not including it. MH370 is missing, no trace of the aircraft or the 239 people on board has been found so far, and the official belief at this stage is that it was probably the result of a deliberate act.

So how many fatal accidents have there been – worldwide – in the first six months of 2014?

Actually there was only one (other) fatal accident involving a commercial passenger flight, and that happened to a 19-passenger DHC Twin Otter in Nepal. Beyond that there were another four  fatal accidents, but all involving pure cargo flights where the crew lost their lives.

Looking back 40 years at the first half of 1974, I found that there had been 25 fatal accidents involving passenger flights in that period, at a time when far fewer flights took place every day.

My colleague Paul Hayes at Flightglobal’s Ascend consultancy says aviation is getting so safe now it’s difficult to explain to ordinary travellers how safe it is, because the chances of being on board a fatal flight are so small the number of noughts between the decimal point and the first positive figure is so massive it feels meaningless.

He suggested applying the airline fatal accident risk that was current in the year 1950 to the number of flights that take place today, and has deduced that there would be ten fatal airline accidents per DAY in which revenue passengers would be killed.

The number of deaths that would result annually is more difficult to make meaningful, because it would depend if you factored it for the much greater number of people on each flight, and the greater distance covered by today’s faster aeroplanes. But Paul says that whichever way you played it, the number of passenger deaths annually would be between 50,000 and 200,000.

Last year there were 281 deaths in all types of commercial air transport worldwide. In the first half of this year there have been 28 fatalities, and only 15 of those were fare-paying passengers.

So is the industry closing in on the holy grail of zero fatal accidents?

It certainly seems to be.

But when you look at the number of non-fatal accidents that happen you realise that risk is still very much there.

(PS: For those who are genuinely interested in the future  implications of for the management of a low-accident industry, I advise you to read the attached comment from Dr Michel Masson of the European Aviation Safety Agency)


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3 Responses to Where’s the safety incentive when accidents don’t happen?

  1. Michel Masson 4 July, 2014 at 8:39 am #

    Hello, David.
    Good remarks, indeed.

    Very few fatal accidents means:
    - Unclear trend and correlation between accident scenarios,
    - Risk of complacency and of “safety awareness erosion”,
    - Learning from accidents is insufficient: a risk-based approach making use of precursors is needed.

    The European Commercial Aviation Safety Team (ECAST) therefore took the following orientations back in 2012:
    - Severe incidents must be investigated and the reports published and shared amonmg the community – in Europe, this poses a translation challenge;
    - Safety assumptions, safety defences or barriers must be continuously challenged using selected incidents through a formal process,
    - An efficient dissemination process must be established.

    High profile occurrences reveal the failures of certain safety assumptions: something happened that was not supposed to happen. This is why ECAST set up a Task Force looking at High Risk Incidents (HRIs). This work is performed in coordination with the European Network of Analysts (NoA).
    See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=IgDyhvXW8jM.

    If we now consider General Aviation, figures do substantially differ: there are still high numbers and rates of fatal accidents and fatalities! If the primary objective is to save lives, focus should thus be on GA.

    With best regards and wishes,
    Michel, ESSI Secretary

  2. Prasanta Chattopadhyay 18 July, 2014 at 5:55 pm #

    Dear Michel,
    It is true that the Commercial Airline Operation is much more regulated and controlled these days, specially with compulsion of introducing SMS. However the General Aviation is still left to the Owner/Operator because of the number gap between operators and regulators. In this cut-throat commercial environment every one cuts corner, perhaps that is our human nature. We love to believe “Nothing is going to happen”. You are right to say that all our attention should now be focused in this “General Aviation” area of operation, at the same time we also must admit that some sort of adventure flying, what we used call as bush -flying, should be ignored otherwise, the thrill of flying will be lost. Best Regards

  3. Grubbie 20 July, 2014 at 3:04 pm #

    Bang goes that theory……

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