The downward trend of fatality numbers continues, but worries remain over differences in regional safety standards

David Learmount/LONDON

All is not well with airline safety. Despite fewer fatalities in 1999, accident numbers equalled those in 1998, and some significant international airlines - most notably a few key carriers in the Asia Pacific region - maintain a dogged resistance to safety improvement. It is the impact of these airlines, particularly China Airlines and Korean Air, on passengers' perceptions of worldwide air travel safety which most worries the industry.

Organised politico/terrorist hijacking also made an unwelcome return to the international aviation stage in 1999. Only one such event took place during the year - involving an Indian Airlines Airbus A300 in December - but because it was not handled according to established international practice, security experts are worried that it has again made air transport look like an easy and effective target for terrorists. One person was killed and not only were the hijackers released, but some of their demands were met.

No fatal hijacks occurred in the previous two years, and since 1994 the industry has been free of politically motivated terrorist hijacks that were overtly successful. Hijacking and attempted hijacking have not stopped, but they have largely become the province of individuals with personal agendas, such as those wanting to escape from one state to another, and the unbalanced. Professional terrorists with a political agenda appeared to have been seeking easier targets, but the Indian Airlines incident may have put hijacking back in their tactical arsenal.

The same number of fatal airline accidents occurred in 1999 as in 1998 - 48 - but fewer deaths resulted - 730 compared with 1,244. These figures include accidents involving major airlines, commuter and regional operators and cargo flights. Three years after the decade's high of 57 fatal accidents, a downward trend in accident and fatality numbers has been established despite a rise in traffic over the same period.

Flightcrew fatigue

The final report is still awaited from the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) inquiry into the American Airlines fatal Boeing MD-80 runway overrun at Little Rock, Arkansas, but the Federal Aviation Administration believes flightcrew fatigue will be revealed as a causal factor. The crew had been on duty for 13.5h, which is legal. As a result, the FAA has made it clear to the US industry that it will tighten up flightcrew duty time practices, and that fines will hit any carrier that is seen to be pushing the boundaries unwisely. The NTSB cites the Little Rock accident in reiterating its view that US duty time regulations are "out of date and unscientific".

The most puzzling serious accident of 1999 was the EgyptAir Boeing 767 crash in Nantucket Sound, off the USA's east coast (see listings). Although the flight data recorder (FDR), with more than 100 data threads, and cockpit voice recorder (CVR) were both found in working condition, the mass of information recovered from them providing an enigmatic picture of the early part of the incident without conclusive proof of the cause.

The aircraft's descent, climb and the beginning of its final dive were measured by the recorders and by radar. Early official reports from the NTSB say there is no evidence of aircraft malfunction. Leaked unofficial reports from NTSB and Federal Bureau of Investigation employees suggested pilot suicide, based on circumstantial evidence. If it were suicide, some of the co-pilot's actions toward that aim were not efficient - for example, setting the engines to idle and putting the aircraft into a steep descent, rather than leaving the engines at high power and selecting a near-vertical dive, as appears to have happened in the 1997 Silk Air 737 crash in Indonesia (for which the official report has not been released). Also strange, if suicide was the cause of the EgyptAir crash, is the reported lack of verbal conflict between the captain and co-pilot when the captain returned to his seat. Physical conflict between the two might be indicated by the FDR's record of split left and right elevator operation, which at one point showed a disparity of 7° between the two elevators.

Video argument

An accident like EgyptAir provides a strong argument for those who back the use of cockpit video recorders to aid accident investigation. Not only would this reveal which pair of hands does what, but information that is not provided by the FDR - such as what the flight, engine and systems displays are showing - would be available. At present, the FDR sensors record what controls and systems do, but not what the displays tell the pilots. There could also be disparities between what the pilots have selected and what happens, for example a flap setting selected but not deployed.

Fatal accidents involving scheduled carriers LAPA and TAESA, and two involving Cubana jets, have set back Latin America's co-ordinated effort to improve its safety reputation. Perhaps well-established forums such as Latin America's Pan American Aviation Safety Team will ensure this is a spike on the region's accidents graph.

With three hull losses, two of them fatal, Korean Air had a disastrous 1999, highlighting a decade of poor safety performance. Although Taiwan's China Airlines had only one fatal accident in the year, it has also performed badly in the past 10 years, with two major Airbus A300 catastrophes, a Boeing 747-200F fatal accident, and a non-fatal 747-400 total loss all before the end of 1998.

China Airlines requested Singapore Airlines to act as a safety consultant, but the latter pulled out after only a few months. Meanwhile, Taiwan, which also had an appalling safety record with its regional airlines in the 1990s, has just reorganised its accident investigation system along the lines of the NTSB.

But evidence that Taiwan's aviation culture still includes being selective with information has surfaced during the investigation into the Formosa Airlines Saab 340 fatal accident in March 1998, according to Swedish participants in the probe. The aircraft plunged into the sea soon after a night take-off in poor visibility. The Swedish Civil Aviation Authority, lead certificator for the Saab 340, has refuted the implication that inherent aircraft faults caused the accident (Air Transport Intelligence, 12 January).

The Swedish team says the Formosa flightcrew elected to take off despite knowing that the main right electrical busbar was unserviceable before flight, whereas the investigation has so far suggested that the failure occurred in flight, causing the accident.

Finally, evidence was uncovered last May, through a confidential reporting system, that Malaysia Airlines 747s regularly arrived at London Heathrow with far less fuel than the safe minimum. There were no ill effects, but it was only wide coverage of the subject by the international media following Flight International's report which has ensured the airline's operations are monitored to ensure safe fuelling practice.

So 1999 continues a slow trend towards improved safety - but with good management, this could be accelerated.

Source: Flight International