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Global airline accident analysis for 2008

One of the themes that emerged from last October's Flight Safety Foundation International Aviation Safety Seminar was that, to advance safety, airlines need to move "beyond [regulatory] compliance", because rulemaking has done about as much as it effectively can.

That theme, also embraced by the International Air Transport Association and the International Federation of Airworthiness, which organise the safety seminar jointly with the FSF, has since been given additional credibility by 2008's accident figures. These confirm that global airline safety has stagnated following a decade of steady improvement - airline fatal accident numbers have levelled out or worsened since 2003 (see graph).

Simple figures paint the picture: in 2003 there were 27 fatal airline accidents causing 702 deaths, and in 2008 there were 34 fatal accidents and 583 deaths. In the interim years the figures show that the trend for fatal accident numbers and the fatalities total are tracking the horizontal almost precisely. Although the number of deaths last year was relatively low at 583, the best result in the past decade was 466 in 2004.

Sudan Airways A310 crash AP/PA photos 
 © AP/PA photos


The Flight International figures list jet, turboprop and piston-powered airline operations, scheduled and chartered, and include fatal accidents involving freight, positioning and post-maintenance test flights as well as passenger operations. For details of individual accidents see the list that begins on.

IATA hull-loss accident rate figures for 2008 to 1 December tend to support the case for airline safety stagnation. IATA says that, having been improving steadily from 1998 to 2006, the Western-built jet hull-loss rate per million flights was 0.77 in 2008 up to 1 December, compared with 0.75 for 2007, but that the best-ever figure of 0.63 was recorded in 2006. The association says a levelling of safety gains is also showing in the accident rate for its own member carriers - now all required to have completed an IATA operational safety audit by the end of 2008. Although there were only 0.47 hull losses per million flights to 1 December 2008 compared with 0.68 in 2007, the IATA member airlines' best-ever year was in 2005, showing 0.43 hull losses per million flights.

Preliminary IATA figures for world regions in 2008 show that the poor performers include the CIS countries, which have gone from a zero rate per million flights in 2007 to 7.92 in 2008, making it the worst regional performer of all for Western-built jet hull losses. Meanwhile, Latin America has worsened year-on-year from 1.76 to 2.77, the Middle East and North Africa from 1.18 to 2.22, Europe from 0.32 to 0.45, and North America from 0.1 to 0.48. The regional improvers are southern Africa, moving from 4.46 to 2.11, Asia Pacific, down to 0.32 from 3.01, and north Asia (not including the CIS), which has improved from 0.97 to a zero accident rate per million flights.

According to IATA's analysis of accident causes and categories, runway excursion topped the list last year, being responsible for 26% of hull losses. Ground damage came next at 19%, gear-up landings plus gear-collapse events constituted 15%, and loss of control in flight 13%. Other categories such as hard landings, undershoot, controlled flight into terrain, in-flight damage and tailstrike were all in single figures.

World airline fatal accidents and fatalities 1999-2008

Returning to the detail of Flight International's analysis of fatal airline accidents, last year there were six involving scheduled commercial jet flights, in which 349 people died. Fatal accidents are usually - but not inevitably - hull losses, and in this case they all were. The number of jet fatal accidents last year was the same as in 2007, but with fewer fatalities.

There were three fatal crashes involving chartered passenger aircraft, killing 49 people. None of these was a holiday charter, and none involved a jet. Commuter and regional airlines worldwide suffered eight fatal accidents that killed 120 people, but the commercial air transport category in which the largest number of fatal accidents occurred was non-passenger operations: that sector saw 17 fatal accidents in which 65 people on board were killed. See the pie charts for accidents broken down by category and type of operation.

The US Federal Aviation Administration is sufficiently worried about the performance of crews on non-revenue flights - including ferry, positioning and post maintenance test sorties - to have sent a safety alert to operators urging them to pay particular attention to flight operational data-monitoring results from such trips. The agency says 25% of all accidents involving US-registered turbine-powered aircraft over the past 10 years have occurred during non-revenue operations.


The common thread revealed by investigations into accidents affecting such flights is the relatively high proportion where the crew disregarded standard operating procedures. One such flight was the 2004 accident involving a Pinnacle Airlines Bombardier CRJ200 on a positioning flight. The aircraft stalled at maximum operating altitude, the engines flamed out and the crew could not restart them. Both pilots were killed. There is no indication that the US Federal Aviation Administration decision to release the safety alert has taken into account the accident involving an Airbus A320 that crashed out of control on a post-maintenance test flight off southern France on 27 November. French accident investigation agency BEA is only now beginning to analyse the recovered data, because the flight recorders had to be returned to the manufacturer, Honeywell, when the BEA found they were too badly damaged for normal data recovery measures to work.

The year's worst single accident was the crash on 20 August during take-off of a Spanair Boeing MD-82 at Madrid Barajas airport in Spain. All six crew died in the accident, as did 154 of the 166 passengers. That accident happened when the crew failed to set the flaps to the take-off setting, but investigators will also be trying to understand the reason why the take-off configuration warning system did not alert the pilots to their omission. For details released so far about the crash, consult the accident list.

In 2008 there have also been some serious accidents resulting in hull losses that, fortunately, were survived by all on board. Among these were the 17 January British Airways Boeing 777 crash-landing short of the runway at London Heathrow airport, the November Ryanair Boeing 737-800 that was badly damaged by a heavy landing at Rome Ciampino airport after hitting a huge flock of starlings on final approach, and the Continental Airlines 737-500 that ran off the runway at Denver airport, Colorado on 20 December during the pilots' attempt to abort the take-off.


Meanwhile, a breakdown in trust between airline management and pilots in two major US carriers potentially threatens safety, according to both the US National Transportation Safety Board and the FSF. The pilots at American Airlines and US Airways have both, independently, suspended their participation in their respective carrier's aviation safety action programme (ASAP), a voluntary incident reporting scheme intended to encourage the reporting of mishaps of all kinds that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

2008 fatal accidents by type of operation

In both cases the pilots allege that the schemes, intended to be operated by the carriers as non-punitive (provided that any mistakes revealed do not involve gross negligence or deliberate flouting of standard operating procedures), are being abused by the airlines. In both cases the pilots allege the airlines are disciplining some pilots who have filed ASAP reports, and in the US Airways case the pilots want immunity extended to include events the airline learns about from another source as well as ASAP.

The NTSB says it "is concerned that these proactive, voluntary disclosure programmes, in which pilots, mechanics and dispatchers become additional eyes and ears dedicated to aviation safety, are no longer available at several major air carriers". Bill Voss, head of the FSF, says: "The entire industry is facing difficult times, and disputes are inevitable, but no-one should ever allow safety to become a bargaining chip."

In addition, the NTSB has been carrying out a study on loss-of-control accidents which, over the past few years, have become the accident category that kills more people than any other. The agency is particularly interested in those caused by pilot spatial disorientation, including the Crossair (January 2000), Gulf Air (August 2000), Flash Airlines (January 2004) and Adam Airlines (January 2007) accidents, to determine what remedial actions might work.


Potential solutions advanced by the NTSB's senior human performance investigatorDr William Bramble include an education for pilots about the physiological and psychological causes of disorientation, including the fact that distractions from instrument flying are frequently a precursor to disorientation. He points out that distractions during a turn at night or in instrument meteorological conditions were common to all the disorientation cases in the accidents mentioned. Additionally, training co-pilots to intervene if required is a vital component, says Bramble. In all four of the main accidents under study the captain was the pilot flying, and timely co-pilot intervention could have prevented the accident.

At the FAA's December international aviation safety forum for regulators in Washington DC, the FSF's Voss said: "I can think of few problems I have seen in aviation safety where the solutions were not already known." The BA 777 accident was an exception to that rule, and no-one knows yet whether the A320 accident near Perpignan will also be. The rest of the year's accidents probably all come within the "known" category Voss describes.

Click here to see all of the accidents and incidents from Jan-Dec 2008
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