Over the last eight years the system of counting airline accidents annually has ceased to be a useful predictor of future safety performance, because nothing significant has happened to the numbers. A projection would show more of the same.

That is to ignore, however, stresses that have been building in the industry gradually over the last two or three decades and which, if they are not mitigated, will lead to a world in which airlines from the mature economies will face a return to the accident numbers - if not rates - experienced in the 1970s and 1980s. This would be a shock for the travelling public, because air travel in the developed world has become routine in people's minds, and safety has stopped being a real consideration for those who would purchase an airline ticket.

Meanwhile, all the predictions for future air transport demand are for solid growth. Indeed demand for air travel today, even despite the dire economic situation in the mature Western economies, remains fairly buoyant. This continual expansion has, however, not been accompanied by industry investment in suitable specialist training for skilled personnel, either in terms of quantity or quality, creating the single biggest source of stress the system faces: a shortage of pilots, maintenance engineers and instructors for both specialisations.

Combine the system stress caused by lack of expert staff with the continued pressure on airline profits caused by excess capacity, plus high oil prices, and something has to give.

In the last 20 years, almost all the business, technical and operational ground rules governing commercial aviation have radically altered, forced by changes in the market, the air traffic management and navigation environment and aircraft and avionic technology. Logically, these demand a change in training - but that change has not been delivered.

What has most affected the nature of pilots' work is the influence of low-cost carriers, which has brought radical change in many airlines' relationships with flightcrew. But what has most changed an airline's crew recruiting and management is the decline of the military as a provider of pilot skills.

Meanwhile, there has been a loss of pilot exposure to ­anything other than pre-packaged flight planning, followed by automated flight on the line. When ­circumstances are unusual, non-standard, or not automated, a resulting lack of pilot resilience has been leading to fatal loss of control (LOC) accidents, making LOC the biggest killer accident category this century - taking over from controlled flight into terrain in the last.

This fact is acknowledged by industry bodies like the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the International Civil Aviation Organisations (ICAO), respectively IATA's training and qualification initiative (ITQI) and ICAO's next generation aviation professionals (NGAP). So the carriers cannot say they have not been warned, but these efforts have not been translating into action at airline level.

Just as a reminder, the number of fatalities caused by airline accidents in the 1980s was about 1,100 annually, whereas the numbers now are less than 800 a year despite the fact that the revenue passenger kilometres flown now are three times what they were then. The industry could revert to the bad old days, but for a different reason: now the aircraft are better, but the skills to operate them are degrading.

Source: Flight International