Statistics for the year just ended are likely to confirm that global airline safety has stopped improving, and there is no reason to believe that 2010 will be any better.

Since 2003 the number of fatal airline accidents has levelled out so, if 2009 figures show the same, this is beginning to look like an established trend. Meanwhile, the fact that the industry is not ready to make any fundamental changes in the way in which it manages safety performance would reinforce a prediction that things will not get any better.

The failure to improve may not sound dramatic, but it is significant because, until 2003, commercial aviation safety had improved steadily and continuously since the Wright Brothers' first flight.

Accidents in 2009, as in the previous decade, demonstrate that pilot failure to manage situations that they should have been able to handle have allowed many serious events to occur. This can only be corrected by improved training but, especially with financial results as bad as the industry is showing now, no increased investment in training is going to happen at the moment.

Turkish Airlines crash
 © Rex Features
With industry not ready to make any fundamental changes, safety might not get better

Other improvements to risk management, such as the mandatory introduction of safety management systems, including fatigue risk management, are not being universally embraced and, even where they are implemented, the payback will be gradual, not instant.

Under debate at the Flight International Crew Management Conference in London in early December was whether pilot performance deterioration is a symptom of the long-term effects of operating highly automated aircraft. The accident category that safety analysts believe may demonstrate this phenomenon is loss of control, which has been proportionately increasing. In the absence of any appropriate change in the statutory recurrent training regime - like compulsory upset recovery training - there is no reason to believe this is going to change.

And although the International Civil Aviation Organisation approved the new performance-based multi-crew pilot licence (MPL) standards many years ago, take-up has so far been poor. This is because of the need for aviation authorities to work with flying training organisations and airlines to design approved MPL courses that will ensure that the pilot performance standards are not only achieved, but that their achievement is measurable, as ICAO requires.

When the MPL has been widely implemented, a single global piloting licensing standard should be easier to guarantee and to monitor, but this remains a distant goal.

Meanwhile, in Europe anyway, the airport security regulations on the carriage by passengers of liquids in aircraft cabins are due to be relaxed in 2010. But the question remains, how much will they be relaxed, and will the change in the rules be implemented anywhere else? In Europe this is, theoretically, a neutral step from the security point of view, because the only reason for the change is that the existing restrictions on the carriage of liquids, when they were brought in 2006, were intended to be temporary.

Source: Flight International