IN FOCUS: 2011 global airline safety performance

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The year 2011 saw a rise in the number of airline fatal accidents, reaching a total of 32 compared with 26 in 2010, and above the annual average for the last decade, which is 31.

However, there was a relatively low fatalities total for 2011 - at 514, the second-lowest global annual figure in the preceding decade, in which the yearly average is 751 (see graph). These figures include airline operations of all types, including scheduled and charter, pure freight and positioning flights. The fatalities numbers include crew casualties, as well as passengers. The reason for the relatively high fatal accident figure and the contrastingly low number of casualties is the number of small regional aircraft involved, mostly turboprops (see accident list). The number of casualties per fatal accident was 16.

yaroslavl yak-42 crash, rex features

 © Rex Features

A Yak-42 crashed after take-off at Yaroslavl, Russia in September, killing 43

There were nine fatal jet accidents among all the categories of operation, but two involved were freighters and two aircraft of regional-jet size, leaving only five aircraft that could reasonably be categorised as passenger big jets. All the latter were old machines: two Boeing 727s, a 737-200, a Tupolev Tu-154, and a Yakovlev Yak-42. The two worst accidents of the year involved 727s: a 36-year-old Iran Air Boeing 727-200 on a domestic flight that crashed in January near Orumiyeh, killing 77 of the 105 people on board; and there were 77 casualties when a 46-year-old Hewa Bora 727-100 crashed in bad weather at Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Flightglobal data and consultancy division Ascend describes 2011: "It was a good year from the point of view of both safety and insurance. Fatal accident and passenger fatality rates for the year were the lowest ever and, with no major catastrophe, the estimated cost of incurred hull and liability losses in 2011 is not much more than half that recorded in 2010."

ACCIDENT RATE

On accident rates for 2011, Ascend has this to say: "The fatal accident rate has improved from about one [fatal accident] per 1.3 million flights overall in 2010, to one per 1.52 million flights last year (see graph). On this basis, 2011 was the safest year ever, just beating 2009 when the fatal accident rate was one per 1.51 million flights. The fatal accident rate for the five-year period 2007 to 2011 was one per 1.4 million flights."

Airline accidents were not making headlines last year, and Ascend's senior analyst Paul Hayes explains why: "Although the number of fatal accidents involving revenue passengers last year was disappointing compared with the period 2000-2009, these accidents mainly involved small commuter aircraft and fortunately gave rise to relatively few fatalities. Most of the fatal accidents in 2011 also involved small, local operators, which are probably not widely known outside of the communities they serve."

The International Air Transport Association, in its analysis of 2011 global airline accidents at the beginning of December, derived its figures using different parameters. However, they tell the same story as Ascend's figures. Looking at Western-built jet hull losses per million sectors - rather than fatal accidents for all aircraft categories - IATA showed that the global rate improved from 0.67 hull losses per million departures at the same point in 2010 to 0.34 hull losses per million in 2011. That figure, says IATA's safety, operations and infrastructure chief Günther Matschnigg, is the best in airline history.

world airline fatal accidents and fatalities 2002-11

IATA's assessment of regional safety performance, using the same parameters (Western-built jet hull losses per million sectors) sees most regions performing better than they did in 2010. Europe had no such accidents, Southern Africa recorded a rate of 3.93 compared with 8.26 in 2010, and the respective rates for the other regions were as follows: Latin America and the Caribbean 1.43 compared with 2.00; Middle East and North Africa 0.76 against 0.8; Asia Pacific 0.2 against 0.9; North Asia zero compared with 0.38, and North America the same as 2010 at 0.11. The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was worse at 1.39 in 2011 compared with a clean sheet the previous year, but the CIS numbers always look rather artificial when judged by this parameter because there were five Eastern-built jet hull losses among CIS operators in 2011 and those are not included.

Overall, then, it was a bad safety year in the CIS. The IATA analysis of total accident rates for all types put the CIS at 11.7 hull losses per million sectors for 2011, and although 2010 had looked good for the region with no Western-built losses, including the accidents to Eastern-built aircraft put it at 7.15.

Remarking on the significant statistical improvement in Africa - consistently the world's poorest safety performer - Matschnigg says the IATA operational safety audit system has been taken up by many carriers there, and none of those who had undergone it had been involved in accidents. Also, as part of its safety programme for Africa, IATA has funded flight data monitoring and analysis (FDA) programmes at African carriers. This has been "a great success", Matschnigg adds.

Indonesia has a consistently bad airline safety record, especially on domestic routes, and 2011 was no exception. There were four fatal domestic airline accidents in Indonesia, despite its government working to improve the country's safety oversight systems. The only reason this did not destroy the IATA regional accident rate for Asia Pacific is that all four of the crashes involved turboprop-powered aircraft, rather than jets. The largest aircraft involved in a fatal crash in 2011 was an Asiana Boeing 747-400F. Although the investigation has a long way to go, it looks as though the aircraft crashed because of a fire in the main cargo hold. The crew reported a cargo-hold fire and their intention to divert to the nearest airport, at Jeju, but they never made it.

This, together with the similar fatal accident involving a UPS 747-400F near Dubai on 3 September 2010, has triggered an examination of dangerous cargoes, particularly packs of lithium ion batteries which, if they ignite through short-circuiting, generate considerable heat. In both 747 freighters, lithium batteries were on board but not properly identified, and although both crews attempted diversion as quickly as they could, their aircraft became uncontrollable before they could land.

LITHIUM BATTERY RISKS

In September 2011, according to the US Federal Aviation Administration, the Massachussetts Institute of Technology shipped a container of lithium batteries with FedEx, which burst into flames in the company's cargo handling depot before loading, causing considerable heat damage to surrounding fabric. Because the material was not identified properly, the FAA said, FedEx employees could not initially extinguish the fire. The FAA heavily fined MIT for its alleged negligence.

The International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations says there have been 40 reports of smoke and fire incidents associated with lithium batteries since 1990. As lithium batteries in personal electronic devices can ignite, passengers will be asked about equipment they are carrying. It is thought to be more dangerous to put a battery-powered laptop in checked luggage as a fire in the cabin can be quickly detected and extinguished.

flights (millions) per fatal accident

The top safety issue on an industry list of priorities is runway incidents, particularly excursions, because they are the most common accident category and are not confined to airlines in countries with poor safety records.

In 2011, IATA published an updated version of its Runway Excursion Risk Reduction Toolkit for airlines. The crucial advice is to be rigorous about achieving stabilised final approaches, and to carry out a go-around if the approach is not stabilised within tightly defined parameters.

Matschnigg points out that the IATA's increasingly comprehensive safety database, the Global Safety Information Exchange (GSIC), has a feed - called FDX - from airlines' flight data monitoring programmes. Data on the frequency of unstabilised approaches and go-arounds can be linked to the airports, and even runways, at which they happen.

From this, Matschnigg has produced a live chart of world airports, colour-coded according to the frequency of occurrence. There are a lot of red dots over airports in continental Europe, Southern Africa, and the Middle East.

It is already possible to determine whether air traffic control procedures, traffic pressures, or approach design are factors as well as crew performance. GSIC-FDX can also produce animations of the flight instruments during unstabilised approaches for use in crew training sessions.

Pilot and maintenance engineer training is increasingly being highlighted as a problem for the future as airlines grow and the skills base does not increase at the same rate. It could be that 2011 will be seen as the year in which the industry began to qualify and quantify the need, and to define the action required to meet the demand.

AUTOMATION

At a major training conference at the UK Royal Aeronautical Society in August, it was acknowledged that this is a multifaceted problem, requiring changes in regulation as well as investment in training resources within airlines. Robert Scott, of Scott Consulting, described one facet of this modern problem. The system, he said, is increasingly producing pilots incapable of dealing with the unexpected.

"The intellectual and physical skills once ­required of the pilot have largely been replaced by an emphasis on 'soft skills' and ­automation management. The pilot who once cynically challenged sources of information now readily accepts information from a variety of sources, many computer-generated, without question."

One of the results of this has been the rise of loss-of-control or lack-of-control fatal accidents in the past two decades. As it happened, LOC was not a big cause of 2011 accidents, but in many respects it was not a typical year, and 12 months is a very short time in aviation safety statistics.