After a decade of safety improvement until 2005, this year looks likely to confirm - at best - the horizontal trend established since. The industry looks unable to improve its safety performance until operational quality control measures are more widely implemented.
International Air Transport Association figures, both for the global average airline safety performance and for that of its own members, show they reached their lowest accident rates in 2005-6 and have since worsened, if only a little. Another indicator that things are unlikely to improve is the fact that, in regions that consistently report good safety figures, serious accidents - particularly fatal ones - are now so rare that the room for improvement is small.
Almost all fatal accidents in the past few years involve second- or third-tier airlines in countries where safety performance has stagnated. Safety performance in those regions is likely to remain stagnant until global pressure - applied through agencies like the International Civil Aviation Organisation and IATA - to adopt operational and maintenance quality control measures, like safety management systems and safety audits, begins to be heeded.
The last operators to do this will be short-haul carriers in the least safe regions, because they are immune from external competitive pressures such as an alternative to an accident-prone carrier. Another form of pressure is the ban on airlines operating to nations that monitor the performance of foreign national aviation authorities and airlines. Indonesian airlines, for example, are banned from operating to Europe until the national aviation authority's oversight standards meet ICAO minima.
© AP/PA photos
Meanwhile, in countries where the terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS) is not compulsory in commercial transport aircraft, controlled flight into terrain accidents still happen. Figures prove that no TAWS-fitted aircraft has suffered a CFIT accident. The figures since 1997, when the first big commercial jets were being fitted with TAWS, reveal there were six CFIT accidents in that year. By 2007 only 5% of the world's commercial jet fleet lacked TAWS, but among that small minority, according to the Flight Safety Foundation, two airlines suffered CFIT accidents.
Since the chances of CFIT accidents among non-TAWS jet airliners is about six times as high as the world average pre-TAWS, there will probably be CFIT accidents in 2009, even though they can be prevented.
If the trend shown by the FSF's five-year moving average chart for the number of CFIT accidents continues, there will be two CFIT accidents in 2009. Recent statistics suggest there will be loss of control crashes this year, as that category has taken over as the biggest killer.
An indicator of the risks for this year can be drawn from IATA's categorisation of the most common categories of hull loss accidents in 2007: 26% were runway excursions, 19% were caused by ground damage, gear-up landings and gear collapse added up to 15%, while loss of control in flight caused 13%. Other categories such as hard landings, undershoot, CFIT, in-flight damage and tailstrike were all in single figures.
IATA's director general Giovanni Bisignani says the greatest weakness in aviation security also makes it inefficient and unnecessarily costly: the failure to globalise standards. This applies, he says, not only to screening arrangements, but to advance passenger information requirements. He says IATA is pressing governments and airports to standardise.