DAVID LEARMOUNT, OPERATIONS AND SAFETY EDITOR On top of everything else, the last thing the industry needs is a safety problem

After an exceptional year in 2001, airline safety in 2002 returned to near average. Unless there are some severe accidents in the last days of December, the gradual trend toward improved safety will continue (see graph) with aviation consultancy Airclaims forecasting 60 operational hull loss accidents in 2003, in line with the declining average.

People will never think of 2001 as being accident-free because of the shadow cast by 11 September, but operationally it was exceptionally safe and that achievement would normally have been cause for celebration (Flight International, 22-28 January). But no-one dares celebrate, of course. Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) president Stuart Matthews warns: "The industry's economic problems, exacerbated by security issues, have dominated 2002. However, none of our current safety concerns have diminished in any way and it is imperative that the industry continues to keep its eye on the ball by maintaining its focus on safety matters. The industry does not need, and cannot afford, a safety problem on top of everything else."

Looking at the fatal accidents in 2002, there is no reason to connect them with the economic state of the industry because the patterns are too much like those of the recent and more distant past. Big jets from Australasia and Europe do not feature, and only one US-owned jet appears - the DHL Boeing 757 freighter involved in the mid-air collision over southern Germany. Most of the aircraft that feature in the list come from Africa, the CIS countries, the Far East and Pacific Rim, and South America. Such consistency does not suggest rapid change, either for the better or for the worse.

In fact Matthews is worried by the lack of change where it would be desirable. "Controlled flight into terrain [CFIT] is back with a vengeance," he observes of fatal airline accidents in 2002, adding: "Examination of the CFIT accident statistics shows there was a peak in 1992, another one in 1998 and now another in 2002. We know that CFIT is the leading cause of aviation fatalities and there is a lot of information out there on how to avoid it."

Complacency cycle

FSF, working with industry, has developed and provided free training material and a CFIT exposure risk-analysis tool for airlines to use, and for years this seemed to be working. The FSF still sends its "CFIT checklist" package to airlines today, and Matthews says: "None of the [2002] accidents involved aircraft fitted with terrain avoidance warning system [TAWS], so was this a case of the three- to five-year complacency cycle? That is, you train for a problem which then diminishes. As a result, you don't bother quite so much and after a while [three to five years] it all comes back again. We've seen the same phenomenon in guarding against childhood illnesses. No one gets measles, mumps and scarlet fever these days, so why bother with vaccinations?"

Matthews adds: "TAWS should all but eliminate the CFIT risk, but it is mostly older aircraft that need retrofitting, which could represent an economic burden. The elimination of non-precision approaches will also do much to reduce the risk, as will the air traffic control radar-based minimum safe altitude warning system [MSAWS]. These are well-known facts, but implementation goes all too slowly and accidents continue to happen."

Although Matthews is disappointed that his organisation's research and free safety-related training material does not bring quicker results, 2002 has not shown a shift from the general trend which, over the past decade, has been slow progress toward lower accident rates. Finally, there is no indication so far that the air transport industry's economic ills are degrading safety performance, but Matthews feels it is necessary to warn airlines "not to take their eye off the ball" while there are so many security and economic distractions.

Source: Flight International