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2017: The Safest Year in Aviation History

January 3, 2018

One. Of the more than two billion people who flew commercially last year worldwide, that’s the number who were killed in airline accidents. One person. That unfortunate soul was a passenger on board an ATR turboprop that crashed after takeoff in Canada in December. Twenty-four others on the plane survived.

Thus 2017 becomes the safest year in the history of civil aviation.

It was 2013 that held that honor previously, but the fact is that flying has become so safe that year-over-year comparisons are increasingly academic. Instead of playing the same game every January, it’s better to look from a wider, more macro perspective. What we see is a trend that began about thirty years ago, and has since reached the point where air safety, as we know it, and what we now expect of it, has been radically transformed.

It’s a little like global warming: the entire paradigm has shifted, with every year squeaking just ahead of the previous one as the new record-breaker. Disasters still occur from time to time (see Malaysia Airlines), and there are ups and downs of statistical correction. But the safety bar, so to speak, is in a totally different place.

There are so many intriguing ways to quantify this. And while this is a global story that airlines the world over can be proud of, here are four statistics that Americans, in particular, can savor:

1. The last fatal airliner accident on U.S. soil was the Asiana Airlines crash landing in San Francisco in 2013. Three teenage girls were killed in that incident, one of whom was struck by a rescue vehicle.

2. The last fatal accident involving a U.S. carrier of any kind was the Colgan Air (Continental Connection) tragedy outside Buffalo, in 2009, in which fifty people were killed.

3. The last fatality involving a U.S. major carrier was a Southwest Airlines mishap in Chicago in 2005, in which a 737 slid from a snowy runway and collided with a car, killing a young boy.

4. And perhaps the most remarkable stat of them all is this one: the last fatal accident involving one of the “big three” U.S. majors — that’s American, United, and Delta — was, — wait for it now — the crash of American flight 587 in November, 2001. That’s right, sixteen years ago. Not all that long ago, the idea that our biggest airlines, each of which records thousands of departures every day of the week, could, combined, go the better part of two decades without a single crash, would have been unthinkable. This is arguably the most impressive accomplishment in American aviation history.

It wasn’t always like this.

In decades past, one or two crashes every year involving one or more of the mainline U.S. carriers was considered normal, even expected. And in other regions of the globe the numbers could be staggering.

Consider for a moment the year 1985. During that one year, 27 major crashes around the world resulted in the deaths of almost 2,400 people! These included the Air-India bombing over the North Atlantic, with 329 casualties, and, two months later, the crash of Japan Airlines flight 123 outside Tokyo, with 520 dead. These, the second and fifth-most deadly accidents in aviation history, happened 49 days apart! Also in ’85 were the Arrow Air disaster in Newfoundland that killed 240 U.S. servicemen, the infamous British Airtours 737 fire, and the crash of an L-1011 in Dallas that killed 137.

And we’re still not finished. 1985 was also the year of the TWA flight 847 hijacking.

Sure, that was an unusually bad twelve months, but it wasn’t entirely out of synch with how things used to be.

When I was in sixth grade, in the late 1970s, I started keeping newspaper clippings of plane crashes. Whenever there was an accident, anywhere in the world, I would snip the related articles from the paper and put them into a shirt box. By the end of junior high, that box was jammed full. Six, nine, ten, even a dozen catastrophes every year had been the norm.


The big question is, how did we get here?

No, it has nothing to do with Donald Trump, who this week shocked absolutely nobody by taking credit for the good news in a typically preposterous Twitter message. “Since taking office I have been very strict on commercial aviation,” Trump tweeted. Whatever policies or measures he’s referring to, they exist only in his imagination and are better left unexplored. In typical fashion, instead of congratulating the thousands of professionals who helped make this happen, he congratulated himself, having done virtually nothing.

There are three very real things, on the other hand, we can thank, all of which precede Trump’s presidency:

The first is better crew training: the advent of crew resource management (CRM), for example, and substantial enhancements to cockpit culture, hierarchy and oversight.

Almost as critical has been a raft of improved aircraft technologies: things like TCAS, enhanced GPWS, windshear detection, cargo fire suppression, and so on.

And thirdly — and naive as this will sound to some — we’ve had the collaborative efforts between air carriers, regulators, and organizations like ICAO, ALPA, and other advocacy groups. These people and organizations, often with very conflicting missions and priorities, have, for the most part figured out a way to work together. The specifics here are varied and expansive, from the standardization of runway markings and air traffic control protocols to substance abuse programs. In the U.S., the FAA finally got smart and tightened the hiring standards for regional pilots, and, in a move that was long overdue, strengthened flight, rest and duty time restrictions.

And, okay, we’ve been lucky, too. I’ve been knocking on wood since the first paragraph. And a dearth of headline tragedies does not mean we should rest on our laurels. Complacency is about the worst response we could have. Air safety is all about being proactive — even a little cynical. We need to keep this going.

A quarter century ago, as air travel was beginning to grow rapidly, and the number of aircraft was expected to double or even triple (it since has, and may do so again in our lifetimes), experts warned of a tipping point. Unless certain deficiencies were addressed, we were told, disasters would become epidemic. Some of the scarier analyses were predicting a major crash occurring every week by the early 2000s. Fortunately they were addressed, and the end result is that we’ve effectively engineered away what used to be the most common causes of crashes.

Indeed the global-ness of this trend has been maybe its most notable aspect. It’s one thing that planes aren’t crashing in North America or Europe, but they’re not crashing anywhere, really. Not in India or China, where aviation has been growing exponentially and where the highest levels of concern were. Not in Asia, not in Africa, not in South America. Are all these regions equally safe? Of course not. But they’re all safe.

It’s a little ironic, too, for a couple of reasons:

For one, surfing the Web or clicking on the television, you almost wouldn’t know that any of this has happened. On the contrary, the media’s habit — and by media I’m referring to both commercial and social media — of over-hyping and over-dramatizing even the most minor malfunction or precautionary landing, has convinced many people that accidents are in fact happening more frequently, and that flying has become more dangerous, when exactly the opposite is true.

And then we have people’s attitudes toward flying in general. It’s hard to overestimate the levels of hate and contempt people have for the airlines, and while a lot of that sentiment is well-earned, let’s take a minute to acknowledge the enormous strides they’ve made when comes to what is arguably the most important metric of them all.

Say what you want about flying; there’s no denying that it’s become vastly safer. And this new normal is something we can all, well, live with.

 
 

Asterisks:

On the very last day of 2017, in Costa Rica, twelve people died in the crash of a chartered, single-engine Cessna belonging to the company Nature Air. And, last January in Kyrgyzstan, 39 people were killed in the crash of a 747 freighter.

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