So far....So good. World airline safety

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Worldwide airline safety has been better, statistically, in the first six months of 2007 than it has ever been for the same period. Although the number of deaths has been lower several times before, the number of fatal accidents globally has reached a record low.

There have been only 11 fatal accidents to 30 June this year, taking into account all categories of commercial airline operations, including cargo (see graph). The lowest previous total was 12, achieved in the first six months of 2003 and 1984. In 1984, however, the amount of traffic was about one-third of what it is now. The number of fatalities to 30 June this year was 312, which is below the average for the past 10 years, but in some years it has fallen much lower than that because casualties per accident were fewer. In fact most of the fatalities this year occurred in just two accidents: the Adam Air Boeing 737-400 in Indonesia (102 deaths) and the Kenya Airways 737-800 in Cameroon (114 deaths) (see accidents listing, starting P38). All the crashes except one (Kenya Airways) involved veteran aircraft, and they occurred in parts of the world where accident rates are consistently above the global average and serious accidents are still relatively common.

By contrast, there has been no fatal jet accident involving a major Western European, North American or Australasian carrier since the November 2001 crash of an American Airlines Airbus A300-600 at Belle Harbor, New York, and that applies also to the great majority of major intercontinental carriers from other regions.

Age factor

This year's Kenya Airways crash happened to involve a new 737-800, and it was only the second fatal accident affecting a Next Generation 737 in the 10 years since the series went into service. Because most recent crashes in African countries and elsewhere have involved veteran jets and turboprops, some nations have been considering removing certificates of airworthiness from old aircraft, including 737-200s and aircraft of similar vintage, in the belief that aircraft age is a major factor in crash causes. In 2002, Russia decided to revoke permanently the operating certificates for the 17 remaining Ilyushin Il-18 four-engined turboprop airliners following an accident, even though none of them was as old as the 1947-built Grumman Turbo Mallard that crashed fatally in the USA in December 2005 operating a scheduled passenger service. Nigeria, for example, is considering grounding all commercial transport aircraft beyond a certain age on the premise that it cannot guarantee their structural and electrical safety when maintenance becomes a much more extensive - and expensive - job. The results of the inquiry into the Kenya Airways accident will inevitably confirm that taking such measures is not enough on its own.

Special regulation

Taken to extremes, however, the operation of very old aircraft in public transport roles needs a special form of regulation, according to US National Transportation Safety Board chairman Mark Rosenker. At a public hearing last month on the Chalks Ocean Airways Mallard crash, Rosenker said: "This accident tragically illustrates a gap in the safety net with regard to older airplanes. The signs of structural problems were there - but not addressed."

The technical accident report gave the probable cause as "the failure and separation of the right wing, which resulted from the airline's failure to identify and properly repair fatigue cracks in the wing, and the failure of the FAA to detect and correct deficiencies in the company's maintenance programme".

Considering this and other structural failure accidents to very old airframes, last year the NTSB had recommended that the FAA eliminate an exemption that allows aircraft with fewer than 30 seats type-certificated before 1 January 1958 to forgo certain supplemental inspections that would reveal fatigue faults. That exemption applies to about 80 transport aircraft on the US register.

Indonesia, which has never had a good safety record, has suffered two jet fatal accidents so far this year, but that was not all. One of the carriers involved - Adam Air - having lost a 737 with all on board on 1 January, saw one of its crews land another 737 so hard that the fuselage bent in the middle.

Meanwhile, the accident investigator studying the Garuda Indonesian Airlines 737 accident on 7 March in which 21 people died, has issued preliminary statements indicating that the aircraft approached the airport too fast, too steeply, and incorrectly configured for landing. Garuda has suffered four fatal accidents in the past 21 years. Indonesian domestic carrier Merpati Nusantara has had 14 fatal accidents in the past two decades.

Last week Indonesia signed an unprecedented declaration with the International Civil Aviation Organisation, committing the country to "prompt and wide-ranging action for improving the safety of its civil aviation system". Speaking at the Indonesian Strategic Aviation Safety Summit in Bali, ICAO president Roberto Kobeh Gonzales said: "There is an urgent need to implement a concrete, realistic and achievable plan of action." (see box below).

Meanwhile, some soul-searching is going on in the USA about a consistent and demonstrable safety vulnerability in one particular sector. In the first six months of this year, the USA has seen four runway incursion events (see accident listings) that came close to being disastrous, and this reflects previous recorded experience. This has given the NTSB's Rosenker another reason to attack the FAA, which has been independently taken to task in a report by the Department of Transportation watchdog agency the Inspector General's Office. The IGO says the number of runway incursions in the USA has not fallen during the past five years despite action by the FAA.

Dangerous events continue to occur at four major international airports: in FY2005 and 2006, says the IGO, Boston Logan airport suffered 22 runway incursion incidents (one severe), Chicago O'Hare 15 incidents (five severe), Los Angeles International 16 (two severe) and Philadelphia 16 (one severe). According to the IGO, the specific local remedial actions that have now been carried out by these airports were not adopted until after a serious runway incursion had occurred.

Rosenker says one causal factor in these events is the failure of the airport movement area safety system to perform as intended. So Africa and Indonesia may have their problems, but no country, however advanced, is immune from safety challenges.