THE MAGAZINE

Flying Safer Skies?

By John Barham

More people are flying around the world more often than ever before, yet the rate of disasters in the air has never been lower. There were no terrorist attacks through October 2007, and the rate of fatal accidents fell to a historic low.

Aviation Safety Network (ASN), which compiles data on air travel, notes that no terrorist strikes against aircraft have occurred since 2004, when suicide bombs destroyed two Russian airliners in mid-flight on the same day, killing 100 people. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the airlines’ main lobby group, reported 12 fatal accidents through July last year, compared with 20 in all of 2006 and 26 in 2005.

While a leaked report on air safety from the U.S. space agency NASA—still unpublished at press time—has generated concerns about an increase in near misses, the United States, which accounts for about 40 percent of world air travel, has seen a 65 percent drop in its accident rate in the last ten years. It had just one fatal accident in about 4.5 million flights through September 2007, a big improvement from one death for every 2 million flights in 1997.

Some parts of the world remain very dangerous, however. Air travelers are at great risk in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)––countries of the former Soviet Union––and in Africa. There is no viable alternative to flying in these regions, where distances are vast and ground transportation is slow, unreliable, or nonexistent.

In 2006, the latest year for which detailed statistics are available, the IATA says there were 8.6 accidents per million departures in the CIS. It has no data covering the CIS for 2005. The CIS is afflicted by collapsing infrastructure, unsafe aircraft, and inadequate regulation. Carriers are undercapitalized and poorly managed.

The ASN says that there have been four air accidents this year in Russia, killing 13 people. Last year, 242 people died in four accidents.  But Russia’s Transportation Ministry has ordered airlines to improve customer service or risk losing their operating licenses as part of an effort to improve flight safety standards. “Airlines are definitely improving their air safety in Russia. We are noting a trend toward improvement,” says Emily McGee, an ASN spokesperson.

The IATA also says that Russian carriers are becoming safer and better managed. It says half of the 13 carriers in Russia and the CIS have completed standardized IATA safety audits assessing airline operational management and control systems.

Several spectacular crashes in Brazil have focused attention on Latin America. Last July, an Airbus 320 on a domestic flight into São Paulo, Brazil, overshot the runway and killed 199 people. A year earlier, an executive jet and a Brazilian Boeing 737 collided in midair over the Amazon, killing all 154 people aboard the airliner.

Government investigators found five air traffic controllers at fault and criticized the executive jet’s two American pilots. Nonetheless, Latin America has become safer even as more people travel by air than ever before. IATA data show fewer than two crashes per million flights occurred in 2006, compared with 2.6 crashes per million flights in 2005.

Africa is by far the most dangerous place to fly, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has the continent’s most dangerous carriers. It has suffered more fatal air crashes than any other African country since 1945.

In October, a creaking Soviet-era Antonov 26 owned by local airline Africa One crashed into a market just after taking off from the Kinshasa airport. That accident killed 39 passengers and people on the ground. In September, five people died when an Antonov exploded after landing at Goma in eastern DRC. In August, 16 people died when an Antonov 32 crashed soon after taking off from another provincial airport.

Africa’s airlines operate aging, poorly maintained aircraft that often fly overloaded. Runways are in poor repair, and lax controls are rarely enforced. For example, the DRC government had banned flights by accident-prone Antonovs weeks before the Africa One crash. The DRC alone has 50 registered airlines, and all have poor safety records.

The European Union has banned carriers from five African countries from its airspace. The EU has also banned all Indonesian aircraft as well as all but 18 widebody jets operated by Pakistan International Airlines.

The IATA, which opposes the EU’s policy, has set up a process to bring banned and suspect carriers up to standard. “We are against the blacklist. It doesn’t address the problem [or] tackle the root causes,” says Steve Lott, an IATA official.

Lott says that IATA’s Partnership for Safety program is designed to “improve operating standards and safety with seminars to share best practices, do gap analysis for airlines, and safety training. The goal broadly is to get a 25 percent improvement in safety” at airlines around the world.

Carriers that complete this program can undergo an IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) to prove that they meet the global standard for airline operational safety with which all IATA members must comply. Until then, air travelers in some parts of the world will still be flying on a wing and a prayer.

 

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