ANALYSIS: Are airlines as safe as 2012’s low fatal accident rate suggests?

This story is sourced from Airline Business
Subscribe today »

Comment from the February 2013 edition of Airline Business

The aviation industry can pride itself on making 2012 the safest year on record. But while the fatal accident rate is at the lowest ever, history proves that it may be a little premature for airlines to start their self-congratulation

When Gordon Campbell Gray created One Aldwych, his luxury five-star hotel in central London, he wanted it to be a snob-free zone where everyone was treated exactly the same. "So I hired only Australian doormen because they don't understand snobbery. You couldn't educate them to be snobbish - they don't get it," he says.

Some experts believe the Aussie laid-back attitude to hierarchy is one of the factors behind the country's enviable aviation safety record that is exemplified by its national airline. (Recall those immortal words said by ­Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man: ­"Qantas never crashed.")

In the highly charged atmosphere of a cockpit during the critical stages of flight during adverse operating conditions, it is vital that the junior pilots have no fear of challenging the decisions of their superiors. It is something that comes naturally to Australians, apparently, and far less so to other cultures - and countless numbers of airline passengers have died as a result.

But, in 2012, the rest of the world's airlines managed to all but mirror the safety record in Australia. Whichever way the statistics are cut, world airline safety last year was exceptionally good, particularly in terms of accident rates and in simple accident numbers.

IATA is rightly proud of the fact that for the first time in history not one of its member airlines suffered a hull loss to a Western-built jet. It also underlines the association's ongoing commitment to raise the safety bar through its IOSA safety oversight initiative.

A special report on 2012 safety statistics published by Flightglobal's consultancy arm Ascend explains that the fatal accident rate dropped from about one per 1.4 million flights in 2011 to one per 2.3 million flights in 2012. "On this basis, 2012 was certainly the safest year ever and, on the face of it, 65% safer than 2011, which itself had been labelled 'the safest year ever'," says the report. But, what conclusions can really be drawn from safety statistics?

Those with long memories will recall what happened after 1984, which was at the time the industry's safest year ever. Only two passengers died in Western-built jet total losses (a Cameroon Airlines Boeing 737) in 1984, but safety fell off a cliff the following year.

In 1985, some 1,480 airline "customers" died in jet accidents, including 505 passengers in what is still the worst air crash involving a single aircraft, a Japan Airlines 747.

So before all the champagne corks start popping in celebration of 2012, ask yourself whether you really believe that the world's airlines have suddenly become as safe as the statistics suggest.

Unfortunately Ascend's senior safety analyst Paul Hayes, for one, thinks not: "2012's accident rate, perhaps, should be considered more of a fluke than the new norm," he warns.

Of course the industry cares about safety, because un-safety costs lives. And, although not scientific, fatal accidents are the way the public judge the safety of the airline industry.

Ascend believes the underlying global passenger fatality rate is probably about one per six million passengers carried - about three times better than during the 1990s, but only perhaps 60 times better than the 1950s.

Nevertheless, airline safety is continuing to improve rapidly, and last year has reinforced that trend in an emphatic manner. The industry, on average, probably becomes twice as safe about every 10 years, while traffic growth globally is only forecast to be perhaps 3-4% per year over the same period. So, on average, we might expect about 30% fewer fatal accidents a year by 2023.

Arguably, the only thing wrong with the declining number of fatal/hull loss accidents is that it makes it harder to learn new lessons. But there are plenty of incidents, and the industry must now redouble its efforts on eradicating all the remaining preventable accidents - especially the ones that haven't killed any customers - yet.