1996 spawns worst-ever accident totals

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Three grim airline accident records were set in 1996. Commercial passenger and cargo airlines worldwide suffered more fatal accidents, more onboard fatalities and, by a massive margin, more crash-caused deaths on the ground than ever before. This has established an already-emerging upward trend for the 1990s in the numbers of fatal accidents and fatalities.

Excluding events caused by sabotage or hijack, airlines in 1996 suffered 57 fatal accidents and 1,840 fatalities, compared with 56 accidents and 1,213 casualties in 1995. The latter year had itself set the record for the highest number of fatal accidents. In 1985, the previous worst year for fatalities, there were 1,801 deaths in 39 accidents.

If crashes caused by illegal interference with flights are included, 1985 remains the worst year, with 2,230 deaths against the 1996 absolute total of 1,968 fatalities. The difference is generated by the magnitude of the 1985 Air India tragedy, in which a Boeing 747 was brought down in the Atlantic by a terrorist bomb, killing all 329 people on board. The 23 November, 1996, hijack of an Ethiopian Airlines 767 resulted in the death of 128 people when the pilots were forced to ditch the aircraft near the Comoros Islands.

According to International Civil Aviation Organisation figures, however, scheduled passenger traffic in 1985 was only some 66% of that for 1996. If the 1985 accident numbers were factored for the traffic increase to 1996, the statistical extrapolation would give 2,729 fatalities and 59 accidents. Comparing the two worst years on record, therefore, the statistical risk to individual passengers has decreased significantly.

Perhaps the most shocking 1996 result, by comparison with previous years, was the number of deaths on the ground caused by crashes, which was 364.

Some 300 of these, together with 253 serious injuries, occurred in a single accident at Kinshasa, Zaire, when the pilot of a Scibe Airlift Antonov An-32 freighter aborted its take-off. The aircraft overran the runway by about 600m, ploughing through a busy shantytown marketplace.

Two other freighters between them were responsible for another 50 deaths and 60 serious injuries. The worst previous third-party fatality accident also involved a freighter and occurred in 1966: a Flying Tigers Canadair CL-44 crashed in fog on a radar-assisted approach to Da Nang, Vietnam, killing 107 people on the ground, says the Airclaims World Airline Accident Survey. The UKCivil Aviation Authority's new Accident Analysis Unit says that freighters have a "far higher" accident rate than do passenger aircraft.

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