2008 forecast: Safety standards in a minority of states will remain low

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Aviation safety continues to operate in two parallel universes. The first universe - which encompasses airlines that carry more than 80% of all passengers - experiences no fatal accidents, even if its airline inhabitants suffer a few damaging events. The other parallel - but well separated - universe is inhabited by airlines based in some second- and third-world countries, and they continue with a hull-loss accident rate that most of the world left behind in the late 1960s.

Whether this situation changes this year depends largely on the states concerned. In 2007 the worst were Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Change for the better depends on whether they decide to empower and resource their national aviation authorities to carry out safety proper oversight checks on carriers and to remove the operators' certificates of those that fail to measure up to International Civil Authority Organisation standards.

But the coming year will see no improvement in the DR Congo and states like it, ravaged as they are by internal conflict and lawlessness. Indonesia may reap some early benefits from a professed intent to do something to ensure that its dire 2007 record is not repeated this year, but years of neglect and a fast-expanding deregulated marketplace will inevitably mean that flying locally there remains a relatively high risk occupation for a year or two yet.

Brazil is a country with the expertise and knowledge to run a world-class commercial air transport industry, and its standards remain well above the likes of Indonesia. But in the last two years the fault lines in the country's under-resourced aviation infrastructure have begun to show. Again, although Brazil will benefit from a heightened awareness of risk which may improve its standards, the resources to raise the infrastructure standards have not yet been brought to bear.

Meanwhile there are tools available to help states that want to improve. The International Air Transport Association's operational safety audit system has been endorsed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, and many NAAs have adopted it as a compulsory requirement for airlines if they want their operators' certificates renewed.

A year ago IATA itself made the IOSA a requirement for all its member airlines, and slung out six that either failed it or had made no effort to meet the deadline that the association set for booking an audit. Two of those carriers, says IATA director general Giovanni Bisignani, are now back in the fold, so the motivation is clearly there.

Piling on the pressure

IATA says that there is no reluctance among carriers to accept the IOSA requirement, and that those who cannot undergo it or fail to measure up are usually in countries riven with strife.

At the same time ICAO is piling on the pressure state by state, beginning with safety oversight issues. At the Organisation's General Assembly in September, Roberto Kobeh González, president of the council said: "Over the past three years, ICAO has made significant progress in becoming more performance based and results-oriented." Progress is steady, so at this stage the world will not see major changes in 2008.

Meanwhile, security is not a popular subject with international travellers unless they are flying within a political bloc like the European Union that has agreed standards, and in which each trusts the other to provide a high-quality point-of-origin security check that does not need to be repeated for passengers who connect onto other flights.

It is an indictment of the world air transport system that the first truly international agreement forged since 9/11 has just been concluded between the UK and Singapore. They have agreed to trust each other's security checks. Don't hold your breath for more such inspiration in 2008.