ANALYSIS: Latin America makes progress in safety performance

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Last year, Latin America’s airline safety performance continued a gradual process of convergence with accident rates for North America and western Europe, but the figures still have some way to go to reach equivalent performance.

Flightglobal's Ascend Online database shows that this gradual convergence of the 10-year moving average fatal accident rate for jet airliners has been in progress since 1989.

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However, at that time, the disparity was huge, with Latin American rates about seven times those for the two other continents. This figure has been reduced to about a multiple of three against much lower rates for North America and Europe, with Latin America beginning to better the rates that Europe was achieving in those days.

In fact this year – so far – there have been no jet fatal losses to Latin American carriers, so the annualised rates are the same for jet operators from all three continents, a fatal accident rate of zero. However, one accident in any of these regions before the end of the year would change the rates dramatically. Although the 10-year moving average is an artificial construct, serious accidents involving jets are now so rare that just 12 months of statistics is more or less meaningless, so the moving average is one way of measuring real long-term – rather than apparent short-term – improvement.

With the world’s average airline jet fatal accident rates set at about 0.5 per 1 million departures, a region has to remain free of serious accidents for two successive years to equal that average. However, to do better than average – as Europe and North America consistently do – requires zero serious accidents for several years in a row, and preferably forever.

In fact, during 2012, Latin America suffered no jet fatal accidents either. Therefore, if by December 31 this year there have been none, it proves that that level of safety is achievable now. It is the reason why the region’s safety performance figures are continuing to converge with those of Europe and North America even when seen through the unflattering lens of the 10-year moving average. Chile and Argentina have lost no jets for more than 10 years, so it can be done.

The evidence of how improvement has been taking place in the industry suggests that the reasons for improvement are more than regional issues such as infrastructure quality and local weather, although they cannot be ignored either. For example, the reason that IATA airlines have a consistently lower serious accident rate than non-member carriers is generally attributed to the fact that passing the compulsory IATA operational safety audit (IOSA) every two years helps keep them that way. Many non-IATA airlines also choose to submit to it voluntarily.

The operators who seem to find it easy to fall through the industry safety nets are small carriers operating twin turboprops or even piston-engined types, particularly those who carry out ad hoc private charter or cargo operations. There have been six such fatal accidents in Latin America this year so far involving aircraft from piston-engined Pilatus Britten Norman Islanders, through twin turboprop Beechcraft King Airs and Dornier 228s, to Cessna Caravan freighters. One of the strange regional aspects of these losses is that a high proportion of the aircraft go missing en route rather than suffer an accident during the more normally hazardous take-off or landing phases. This characteristic is one that Latin America demonstrates in common with regions like Indonesia.

However, the trends are in the right direction. One of the major factors in safety improvement all over the world is the technological advances that come with current generation airliners. Statistically, they are much safer even than solid aircraft like the Boeing 737 classics and the MD-80s, descendants of the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 series. Latin America’s re-equipment rate exceeds that of North America and Europe, so that bodes well, as does the influence of the Pan American Aviation Safety Team on the region’s safety culture.