How safe is business aviation? Is it improving? We assess the latest trends and how segments of the market compare with each other

Over the past decade or so, fatal business-jet accidents involving pilot error during approach and landing appear easy to classify, according to a new study. They all fit into just one or two categories: either controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) or loss of control (LOC), according to NetJets safety committee member Patrick Veillette.

Presented to the Flight Safety Foundation Commercial Aviation Safety Seminar at Tucson, Arizona on 27 April, the Veillette study looks at global business jet accidents and incidents from 1991 to 2002. The study says that out of 35 such accidents in the 11 years to 2002, 25 were CFIT and the remaining 10 were LOC. Already this year there has been one such accident. On 24 February a City-Jet Cessna Citation 1 hit high ground on approach to Cagliari, Sardinia, killing all six people on board. The crash occurred at night in poor weather 30km (16nm) from the airfield. The aircraft had been chartered to deliver a heart transplant team and a transplant organ.

Veillette says that his analysis covers 251 accidents and 808 incidents recorded by official agencies in the USA and four other countries, and from UK aviation safety analyst Airclaims. Among the accidents, 67 (26.7%) were fatal and, of those, 35 were the "consequences of crew-caused errors in approach and landing accidents", according to Veillette.

The non-fatal crew-caused approach and landing accident categories were more varied, including 59 runway excursion events, 14 runway undershoots, one loss of control, 10 hard landings, seven failures to extend the landing gear, and six which Veillette categorised as "other" results. There were no non-fatal CFIT events.

Among the total 251 business-jet accidents in the period, Veillette has found that 167 occurred in the approach and landing phase, and 132 of these were crew-caused. He analysed the latter for the contributory causal factors, and emphasises there was sometimes more than one causal factor in any one event. In 66% of accidents the pilots deviated from standard operating procedures (SOP); in 43% there was inadequate cross-checking by the second crew member; 40% involved handling error; 39% showed poor positional awareness; 33% involved poor evaluation of runway or weather conditions; and in 33% of events there was poor crew judgement.

In the USA last year, corporate and executive aviation saw its best-ever safety year, according to another study presented at the FSF CASS. Based on figures supplied by corporate aviation consultant Robert Breiling, the other categories of business flying also had a safer year than 2002, and air-taxi safety was not quite as good as in the previous year. During January-March, however, the USA has seen a 26% increase in accidents compared with the same period in 2003, Breiling records.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada reports a clean sheet for corporate flying in 2003, continuing a safe run since 1998, and last year Australia recorded only one no-injury incident, involving a Bombardier Learjet 45. Europe does not have centralised analysis yet and it will probably be a long time before it has an accessible regional database. Last year the region lost a business jet to birdstrike: on 1 June a Eurojet Italia Learjet 45 crashed shortly after take-off from Milan Linate, killing its two crew. Although the final report is still awaited, a major factor is believed to be a multiple birdstrike.

Corporate flying normally involves turbine aircraft flown by a crew of two fully qualified professional pilots. In the USA they operate under Part 91 private flying regulations, and in Europe under full airline requirements. Business flying may be as simple as an aircraft regularly flown by its owner for business travel purposes. To put the Breiling figures in context, he notes that corporate and executive operations increased by 3.5% last year, business operations by 1.5%, and general aviation overall was 1% more active.

Fractional safety

No distinction is made in Breiling's figures between the safety performance of the fast-growing fractional-ownership sector and other forms of corporate operation, which can vary from a single aircraft owned and managed by a company to small virtual airlines run by huge multinational corporations like Shell.

By far the world's largest fractional operator, NetJets, claims it has advantages over small organisations. Chief operating officer of NetJets Europe David Marcus says: "Compliance standards vary massively in this industry, and it varies most in recruitment." When NetJets is recruiting it sometimes tests applicant pilots from small corporate or air-taxi operations, he says: "They have licences, but some of them can hardly fly and others are excellent. Some have never been in a simulator in their life."

All NetJets' type or recurrent training is carried out by FlightSafety, the US-based training specialist, says Marcus, but NetJets does its own crew-resource management training, which is repeated annually for all pilots.

Organisations like NetJets have three areas of focus in running their businesses, claims Marcus: safety, service and economics. Safety has to be top of the list, he explains, because although a large airline with a strong brand name flying large aircraft can survive a serious accident with its business unharmed, "operators of small aircraft frequently carrying celebrities or high-profile people cannot afford to have an accident, because the perceptions of the two types of operation are different". NetJets' philosophy in this respect is clear from its website, a large proportion of which is given over to detailed information about the lengths to which it goes in staff selection, flight operations and maintenance, to ensure it runs a safe organisation.

In contrast, airline websites avoid mentioning safety. According to the NetJets theory, airlines know passengers will trust them to be safe, so it is counterproductive for them to mention safety in the marketing process.

The safety comparisons between the various air transport categories shows up in the Breiling data, and corporate and business aviation still compare well with airline operations



Source: Flight International