Airline safety review

The FSF's director of technical standards, Jim Burin, says the key to resuming global safety improvement is persuading those countries - mostly developing economies - to embrace the radical cultural change in going "beyond compliance" - the recognition that complying with legal minimums does not deliver satisfactory safety.

According to Burin, a good safety culture in an airline is the key to safety performance improvement, because without a positive attitude to safety from the board downward, the tacit adoption of a safety management system will not necessarily bring any improvement.

Western built jet hull loss rate 2000-2010


Burin says that almost all the serious accidents that happened in 2010, as in the previous decade, could easily have been prevented if the airlines concerned had applied existing, fully understood, simple intervention strategies. He cites a few examples of intervention strategies that would eliminate most serious accidents that are happening today: fitting a terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS) to all commercial aircraft, including turboprops; providing upset recovery training for pilots; and rigorous adherence to stabilised approach procedures.

Burin points out that 2010 brought two more loss of control and two more controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) fatal jet accidents, and that these types of incident really can be - and should have been - eliminated as a cause of airline crashes.

The Flight International accident tables suggest that, among turboprop regional and freight operators, when the official accident verdicts for 2010 finally become available, it may be determined that as many as nine fatal accidents involved CFIT.

As for lessons from individual accidents in 2010, the Airblue Airbus A321 crash near Islamabad in Pakistan looks likely to be judged as the first-ever controlled flight into terrain catastrophe involving an aircraft fitted with a TAWS. Several questions arise if this is confirmed. Was the TAWS serviceable and switched on? And if it was operating, what mental attitude or preconception would cause a crew to ignore TAWS warnings? Pilots have died after ignoring or rejecting alerts from the older type of ground proximity warning system. In the Islamabad incident, the crew had carried out an instrument landing system approach toward Runway 30 in rain and a low cloudbase, and had then broken off into a circling approach, intending to position for a landing on Runway 12 because of the wind direction. During the circling approach, the aircraft hit high ground.

There have been two serious accidents involving loss of control or, perhaps more precisely, lack of control. The Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737-800 out of Beirut incident seems to have begun with pilot disorientation (see accident list). In the case of the Afriqiyah Airways A330-200 on approach to Tripoli at dawn, the ground impact involved a groundspeed considerably higher than normal approach speed. Fuel starvation and technical malfunction have been ruled out, suggesting disorientation-engendered loss of control.

Meanwhile, runway excursions - usually overruns after landing - continue to be by far the most common type of aircraft accident, normally leading to aircraft damage but not often involving fatalities.

Dagestan Airlines crash, Rex Features
© Rex Features
A Dagestan Airlines Tu-154 crashed at Moscow Domodedovo after all of its three engines failed


The worst of these in 2010 involved an Air India Express Boeing 737-800 that overran the runway at Mangalore, despite good weather and a dry surface. After an unstable approach that should have been abandoned, the aircraft touched down long and fast, and ran off the end of the runway down a steep slope, killing 158 people.

Behind the aviation front line, a significant emerging study from the Federal Aviation Administration suggests flightcrew have never been properly trained to operate highly automated aircraft. Perhaps they cannot, at present, be effectively trained, the FAA report implies, because there are no checklists for many of the automation-related problems that pilots frequently encounter. This leaves them having to manage using ingenuity.

Entitled "Operational use of flightpath management systems", the report's message is that regular systemic failings in training, identified in real operations, show that airline operations today contain an identified potential for hundreds of latent accidents and incidents unless changes are made. The study is, effectively, a follow-up to the FAA's 1996 landmark report "Interfaces between flightcrews and modern flightdeck systems", but it looks like it might have far greater implications for change than the original.

Leading the study team, FAA human factors specialist Dr Kathy Abbott focuses principally on the pilots' relationship with what she calls "automated systems for flightpath management". This, she says, includes the auto­pilot, autothrottle/autothrust, the flight management system, flight directors and "associated pilot interfaces".