Air travel is now the safest it has been since the dawn of jet planes, with the global airline industry set to mark its lowest rate of fatal accidents since the early 1960s.
There have been 22 fatal crashes world-wide this year, a number that includes all passenger and cargo flights, down from 28 crashes in 2011, according to data assembled by the Aviation Safety Network, which compiles accident and incident information online. That crash count is down from a 10-year average of 34 fatal accidents per year. The figures were compiled before Saturday’s crash of a Russian-built jet near Moscow, in which four people were killed when the plane careened off a runway and caught fire.
Airline safety has improved steadily over the years, and accident rates in the U.S. and elsewhere began dropping with the advent of voluntary incident-reporting programs that encourage pilots and mechanics to pass on information about mistakes without fear of retribution.
Other reasons for the safety improvements include better and more reliable equipment, improved pilot training, advances in air-traffic-control procedures and tighter regulatory oversight in some developing countries.
Of the year’s 22 fatal crashes, just 10 involved passenger aircraft, and just three of those were larger Western-built jetliners.
The other seven passenger-plane incidents involved Western- or Russian-built turboprops, according to Ascend, an international consulting firm that assembles a separate year-end safety breakdown.
Russian-built planes typically fly relatively few passengers but historically have suffered much higher crash rates than aircraft made in the U.S. or by European manufacturers.
“Overall, it was the certainly the safest year ever,” according to Paul Hayes, director of safety at Ascend. With one fatal accident per 2.5 million flights world-wide, this year “was almost twice as safe as 2011, which itself had previously” attained that distinction, according to Ascend.
But such improvements also underscore persistent safety problems that mean significantly higher crash rates—often by a factor of four or more—across much of Africa, Latin America and other developing regions. And even in the U.S., safety experts warn of potential dangers from pilots becoming confused by cockpit automation and increasing ground-collision hazards posed by congested airports.
There were 470 fatalities from air accidents in 2012, compared with an average of more than 770 people who died annually over the decade.
Mr. Hayes and his staff stressed in their year-end report that “unfortunately, we do not believe that the world’s airlines have suddenly become this much safer.” Instead, the report says the unexpected sharp drop in the global accident rate perhaps “should be considered more of a fluke than the new norm.”
Experts believe that for regions with already record-low accident rates, future improvements primarily will require analyzing huge volumes of incidents and other flight data, culled from multiple carriers around the globe, to identify and eliminate safety threats.
The results are particularly impressive given the growth in world-wide passenger traffic. Some 2.9 billion passengers took to the air in 2012, a 5.5% bump from the previous year, according to the latest figures released by the International Civil Aviation Organization, an arm of the United Nations. With traffic climbing by double digits in some regions, ICAO projects total passenger numbers will double by 2030.
The Ascend report says Western-built jets had one fatal accident per 10 million flights in 2012.
“It’s very hard to point to one reason to explain why this year was particularly so safe,” according to Harro Ranter, president of the Aviation Safety Network, an affiliate of the Flight Safety Foundation, a global advocacy organization based in Alexandria, Va. Mr. Ranter said industry and regulatory initiatives, combined with outside audits by international organizations, “continue to stimulate countries to improve air safety.”
But she said it “doesn’t mean there is any less” focus on pushing toward further improvements.
The statistics again underscore that turboprop operations, which typically carry fewer passengers and often tend to serve smaller airports than scheduled jets, have significantly higher crash rates.
To serve the developing world, turboprops generally fly into fields that are less advanced and are equipped with less-reliable air-traffic-control equipment than major Western airports.
International groups and independent safety organizations are stepping up efforts to help enhance pilot training, improve maintenance and tighten government oversight of turboprop operators.
The last deadly airline accident in the U.S. was the early 2009 crash of a Colgan Air turboprop approaching the airport in Buffalo, N.Y., which killed 50 people.
Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean continue to rack up a disproportionately large share of overall accidents and fatalities.
The regions together account for roughly 7% of today’s global passenger traffic but have recorded nearly half of all 2012 airline accidents, according to Mr. Ranter.
Boosting safety in areas that are lagging behind will require enhanced technical cooperation and data sharing with the rest of the world, according to Kevin Hiatt, the Flight Safety Foundation’s chief operating officer and its next president.
“We really need to start comparing what’s going on around the world,” said Mr. Hiatt, and then broadly distribute the lessons learned.
Some regions already are spearheading ways to achieve greater safety. Airlines, U.S. regulators and trade associations have successfully joined forces in Latin America and elsewhere to reduce accidents.
But in addition to turboprops, some other parts of commercial aviation aren’t doing as well.
For the first time since the Flight Safety Foundation began compiling its detailed annual safety analysis in the late 1990s, this year has produced more business-jet crashes than passenger-plane accidents world-wide, Jim Burin, the foundation’s director of technical programs, told a recent industry conference.
The result has prompted some safety experts to consider placing more emphasis on assessing that segment of commercial aviation.
The Wall Street Journal