The Flight Safety Paradox
Last year was considered a good one for airline safety. However, 2010 was marked by the crash of this Air India Express Boeing 737-800, killing 158.
This article originally appeared in the April 21 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
The(IATA) has released its 50th Flight Safety Report, an impressive document covering the airline industry’s relentless efforts to further diminish incidents and accidents. IATA member airlines (which carry 86% of the world’s 3.1 billion annual passengers) last year suffered a small number of fatal accidents. No more than 210 of their passengers lost their lives, suggesting that flying is safer than ever. Although the “zero-accident” goal may be impossible to attain, we are approaching the moment when safety will be seen as optimal.
The same week IATA’s annual review was published, the air safety community was still suffering from the disappearance of’ Flight 370, a fully loaded -200ER serving the Kuala Lumpur-Beijing route. The mishap is confirming flight safety’s huge paradox, achieving remarkable results but—at the same time—displaying disturbing weaknesses. How can a state-of-the-art long-range widebody twinjet, operated by a mainstream airline, vanish somewhere over the ocean, and disappear from air traffic control’s screens without electronic warnings or radio contacts? And even worse, without transmitting Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System messages?
This is simply not tolerable. IATA’s efforts to dissect safety-related issues, although useful, sometimes seem not relevant to the real world. Not to mention the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) bureaucratic approach at times when quick-reaction measures are urgently needed. Remembering’s Flight 447 plunge into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 and two costly years of search before locating the ’s wreckage, it is obvious that—technology permitting—the time has come for real-time permanent transmission of ATC data and long-duration batteries for flight data recorder distress beacons. Similarly, enhanced cockpit voice recorders should become the rule, without further delay.
A top aviation executive familiar with flight safety issues tells me more action is required in the field, and fewer conferences and working groups. Similarly, he added, ICAO is too isolated from harsh realities. Other executives declined to comment on ongoing issues, including the Flight 370 mystery, in an indication of growing embarrassment.
IATA’s newest flight safety report doesn’t address the accident investigators’ worst-case scenario: an unexplained crash, in the absence of airframe wreckage and flight recorders and, in the end, an inconclusive final report. In the same vein, the Flight 370 case confirms that security still must be improved. Although terrorism may not be involved, two Malaysia Airlines passengers boarded the 777 with passports reported stolen in Thailand. This fact was noted in the Interpol data bank but, in the absence of vigilance and strict checks, international security cooperation proved to be useless.
This is also a wake-up call: Terrorism is still very much a serious threat. Assuming it didn’t play a role in Flight 370’s disappearance, events nevertheless showed how weak security is at the Kuala Lumpur airport and, most probably, at other major gateways. Moreover, locating the wreckage and hopefully retrieving and deciphering the flight recorders will not automatically tell investigators, the airline,, or the victims’ families what the catastrophic sequence of events really was.
Lessons learned from the IATA reports are disturbing, because they show the main causes for accidents remain unchanged: loss of control in flight, controlled flight into terrain and runway/taxiway incursions. The association says the airline industry should increasingly rely on improved technology, regulatory harmonization, enhanced quality and compliance, and advocate improved infrastructure.
Also, an additional effort seems needed regarding twin turboprops. In 2013, accidents involved 12 jets and 16 turboprop-powered aircraft. The world’s inventory in late December comprised 21,879 jets and 4,119 twin turboprops, resulting in an unacceptable level of risk. In other words, much still remains to be done.