The year 2015 will go down in aviation history as a watershed, when the focus on passenger safety shifted from technical and operational concerns to security issues.
Airline safety – judged by the relative absence of genuine accidents and disregarding the results of deliberate hostile action – seems to break new records every year, and 2015 was no exception. Potential security risks, on the other hand, are rising – and increasing passenger casualty numbers bear witness to that. Some security risks are familiar but heightened; others are new and, so far, elude solution.
Last year there were nine fatal airline accidents in which a total of 176 people died, compared with 19 events and 671 deaths in 2014. The 19 fatal accidents total was an all-time low, but if the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in March 2014 should eventually be found to be the result of a deliberate act by someone on board, the figures would be 18 accidents and 432 deaths. So, between 2014 and 2015, the previous lowest fatal accident total has been halved (see graph).
Flightglobal’s Ascend consultancy observes: “If the improvement in air safety since 2010 is maintained for the rest of the current decade, it will equate to some 4,400 fewer passenger and crew fatalities than during 2000-09.” Not only have accident numbers reduced, accident rates have also plunged (see Ascend graphs). For complete statistical detail, Ascend’s Airline safety and losses annual review 2015 can be downloaded from Flightglobal.com.
There were no jet accidents last year. All of the fatal accidents in 2015 involved small, propeller-driven aircraft, most of them carrying cargo only.
There were, however, two jet disasters in 2015, but they were not accidents. One was the Germanwings crash in the French Alps, deliberately caused by the co-pilot in a bid for his own suicide and – perhaps – notoriety. He killed himself and the other 149 people on board. The second jet disaster was the sabotage of the Russian-bound MetroJet Airbus A321 over Sinai, Egypt, in which all 224 people on board died. Evidence points to a bomb having been placed on board the aircraft at its departure airport, Sharm el-Sheikh, but this has yet to be officially confirmed.
So in 2015 more than twice as many passengers and crew – 374 – were killed on airliners by deliberate action than were killed in accidents. The total deaths from all causes was 550, and that is the figure which will colour the perceptions of airline safety among air travellers.
Airport and airline security systems as they are operated at present can no longer be assumed to deliver the results that characterised the 14 years since the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington DC. Measures introduced as a result of 9/11 ushered in heightened airport and onboard security measures that have worked well until very recently. The concern is that the kind of terrorist fanaticism embraced by a movement like the so-called Islamic State (IS) appears to exceed even the zeal of other jihadist groups like Al Qaeda, and its ability to recruit ordinary people to its cause raises the spectre of security staff and flight or cabin crew being subverted. The latter is not an entirely new threat, but if sabotage is confirmed in the Sharm el-Sheikh MetroJet case, it demonstrates weak points in the system can be exploited.
Former head and chief inspector of flight operations at the UK Civil Aviation Authority, Mike Vivian, comments: “The airlines are going to have to put in extra [security] resources, because governments in many parts of the world do not have the resources or expertise to provide the input that is going to be required in the ‘new order’.”
A rare but potentially serious issue is that of pilot mental health, as illustrated by the Germanwings crash; the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in March 2014 may also be found to have been the result of deliberate action by somebody on board.
Meanwhile there have been a handful of fatal airline crashes since 1994 caused by known or suspected crew suicide or revenge action – including the 2013 LAM Mozambique Embraer 190 loss that has many parallels with the Germanwings case – but based on the historic figures, the statistical likelihood of such events remains extremely low. Nevertheless, EASA has taken up the issue and hopes to propose workable measures this year to counter the risk (see sidebar).
Despite the dramatic reduction in operational and technical accidents, the airlines cannot relax and lower their vigilance, because attention to detail is what has brought the industry the high standards it enjoys. The world still has its problem regions for accident risk, and Indonesia is just one of them (see accident tables).
However Indonesia’s relatively new transport minister, Ignasius Jonan, has promised he will continue to take a tough stance to push local carriers to improve safety standards, as the country aspires to bring in more tourists. Referring to firm action he took following the crash of AirAsia Indonesia flight QZ8501 in December 2014, and speaking at the 2015 Association of Asia Pacific Airlines’ annual assembly in Bali, he stated: “The aviation industry in Indonesia today may not like me, but that’s okay.” Jonan added, the Indonesian government has allocated $1 billion to improve transport safety in 2016 – the largest sum to be invested in a single year since Indonesia’s independence.
Other nations have corrected poor safety performance, and results for the world as whole have never been so good, so it can be done.