The first six months of 2004 were among the safestever for airlines, with benefits of training and improved technology over 20 years clearly apparent

The downward trend in worldwide fatal airline accidents continues, with some of the lowest comparative figures of the past 10 years being recorded in the first six months of 2004. There were no fatal crashes involving Western-operated large scheduled passenger jets by 30 June this year, nor had there been for the previous two calendar years.

Overall, there were 14 fatal accidents, slightly up on the same period in 2003, when there were 12. Those accidents resulted in 314 fatalities, compared with 362 in the first half of 2003.

Among the 2004 accidents, causal categories are evenly spread. There has been no dominant accident category for the period to compare with controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) and technical failure, which dominated the first six months of last year.

By far the worst single accident this year, in terms of fatalities, was caused by loss of control and, according to the French team helping the Egyptian investigators, there are no indications at this stage of a technical trigger for that loss. This accident - involving an Egyptian-operated Flash Airlines Boeing 737-300 during its climb-out from Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt - killed all 148 people on board, nearly half of the total airline fatalities for the first six months of 2004. The chartered aircraft was carrying French holidaymakers.

Despite this, the half-year to 30 June has been among the safest and, given that traffic figures have been recovering from recession, accident rates will prove even better. Determining the reason for this is difficult. It is a challenge to determine the cause of any complex fatal accident. It may be even more difficult to identify the reason for such a significant and prolonged fall in the number of serious incidents and why, in certain regions and categories, accidents have not occurred for a few years.

Last fatality

The last Western-operated passenger jet to suffer a fatal accident was a Crossair BAE Systems Avro RJ100, which crashed on approach to Zurich airport, Switzerland in November 2001. There were two other such accidents that year: the SAS Boeing MD-87 collision with a Cessna Citation CJ2 on the ground at Milan Linate airport, Italy; and the American Airlines Airbus A300-600 loss of control at Belle Harbour, New York. Since then, in July 2002, a Western operator - DHL - lost a Boeing 757 freighter in a mid-air collision over southern Germany.

Airline safety has improved almost continuously - with a few annual spikes in the graph - since records began, particularly since the advent of the jet airliner. Even in regions such as the CIS, Asia and South America, where there are serious accidents almost every year, the number of incidents is decreasing.

The notable geographical exception to the downward trend is Africa, which has produced the world's worst fatal accident to date this year and five other fatal accidents if all operational categories are taken into account.

The regional division for all categories of fatal accident so far this year is: Africa six, Asia/Asia-Pacific four, Middle East one, North America one, Russia one, South America one. In the whole of 2003 - during what was a comparatively safe year for the rest of the world - Africa also easily topped the league for serious accidents, suffering three fatal passenger jet crashes (Flight International, 20-26 January).

In the wake of the terrorist hijacks of 11 September 2001, there was concern that, in an industry beset by problems, challenges and financial losses, safety might be pushed down the priority list for airlines, but the figures do not reflect that. In 2002, the number of fatalities to 30 June (716) looked relatively high, but it had been higher (741 in 1994) and the number of fatal accidents (18) was consistent with the average for the previous 10 years. In addition, 2002 was an unusual 12 months in that all the fatal accidents involving scheduled jet passenger services happened in the first half of the year: there were seven up to 26 May and none after that (Flight International, 21-27 January 2003). The geographical breakdown of those fatal accidents comprised three involving Asia/Asia-Pacific airlines, two African carriers, one Middle Eastern and one South American.

If the Western airlines can maintain a flawless safety record for several more years and the rest of the world can raise its game to the same level, the general public's perception of aviation safety could be radically changed for the better. Meanwhile, the security challenge has to be won anew every year: that may prove to be a more difficult hurdle.



Source: Flight International