David Learmount/LONDON

The past year has provided confirmation of society's readiness to believe that air travel is inherently dangerous. Media interest in aviation, often used to advantage by the industry, proves to be a double-edged sword when a series of accidents occurs close together, as happened at the end of 1997.

For about ten years, the transport industry has been shouting the warning that customer perceptions of airline safety are going to become a serious matter. They appear to be right. Although the year produced fatal-accident figures very close to the decade annual averages, a cluster of dramatic crashes from September onwards, emphasised by a particularly bad December, had persuaded much of the media that aviation safety was in a terminal spin. Aviation agencies admit to being harried by journalists for the statistics to confirm it.


Although, at the end of the year, the media discovered that the annual statistics do not back up the perception of declining safety, the story had already been told. The number of fatal accidents and fatalities, at 51 and 1,307 respectively, are hardly higher than the average figures of 49 and 1,243 for the preceding decade (see graph).

Meanwhile, the industry is having some of its own worst fears confirmed: controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), which has consistently killed more passengers and crew than any other accident category, killed more in 1997 than ever before; and the regions in which airline-safety standards are consistently among the lowest are failing to improve their safety performances.

Those whose safety is already good showed improvement, however. There were no 1997 fatal accidents involving passenger jet airliners from the traditionally safe Australasian, Middle Eastern, North American or Western European carriers - apart from on 28 December, when a single passenger on a United Airlines Boeing 747 died of injuries caused during en route clear-air turbulence.

An initial glance at the fatal accidents (see accident tables) suggests that Africa, with no major fatal losses, and Latin America with one, fared better than normal. The southern CIS, parts of Asia and the Asia-Pacific regions, however, had a poor year, with major- and regional-airline losses.


In 1992, led by the Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) and backed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the industry had set about trying to reduce CFIT frequency. Having assembled the industry-sponsored Task Force, the FSF posted the objective of halving the CFIT accident-rate within five years: ie by1997. It is arguable that, in terms of rates, the graph has begun moving in the direction, but the target has proved wildly optimistic. Although small carriers and non-passenger operations tend, in most years, to account for the majority of the CFIT accidents, major carriers are manifestly still vulnerable. Four of 1997's total of seven CFIT accidents involved large jet-powered passenger aircraft.

The non-jet operators should be congratulated on what appears, at this stage, to be a uniquely low 1997 CFIT total for that category, with only three accidents and 23 fatalities. Looking at the graph, however, it will take something more consistent than a dramatic one-year dip in the figures to convince the sceptical that this constitutes a trend. AlliedSignal flight-safety avionics chief engineer Don Bateman, a key member of the FSF CFIT task force, says that, to the end of 1996, there had been a downward trend, in rates if not raw numbers, for large jet-powered passenger aircraft, with about three accidents a year on average. Rates for regional, business and air-taxi companies, however, show virtually no improvement, says Bateman.


At the International Air Transport Association (IATA) November 1997 annual general meeting in Jordan, safety was elevated to a front-line marketing issue.

Two things are in danger of alienating future travellers, emphasised IATA's director-general Pierre Jeanniot: the trend for accident numbers to increase roughly in line with the industry's expansion; and the fact that passenger handling at airports must improve.

The way the media have treated accidents during 1997 confirms Jeanniot's fears and sense of urgency. It appears not to matter that an accident may have involved a chartered military cargo aircraft. News reports related the event to "other-airline" accidents, so the reputation of air travel as a whole is affected.

The increase in public consciousness of flight safety, as well as the fact that more people are travelling by air, has led to the creation of a growing media niche-industry producing air-travel-safety reports and documentaries. Many of these are latching on to the statistical fact of significant differences in safety standards according to country or region, a truth which 1997 has re-affirmed. If this more investigative approach by the media persists, a more-informed and selective travelling public may increase the pressure on the less-safe regions to invest in safety.


In Montreal, Canada, during November 1997, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), won an overwhelming mandate to take on a safety-oversight role. If member states honour the new mandate they have given ICAO, states which do not even know how inadequate their standards are, or what they need to do, can have their shortcomings identified. Often, it will be up to the world industry to help poorer countries solve these problems.

If, reacting to customer perceptions, Jeanniot has introduced the concept of a top-down safety culture to those IATA airlines which did not have one, perhaps ICAO can now introduce a top-down safety culture to the world.


Source: Flight International