2014: The 'worst' safest year in aviation history


Bikram Vohra | January 17, 2015

Contrary to what one might think, 2014 was a relatively safe year for flying. There have been only eight hull accidents as compared to 24 in 2005 which is seen as the bleakest year in the past 30.

Yet, to most people the loss of Indonesia AirAsia Flight QZ8501 at the year-end would be tantamount as the final proof to one of the worst years in civil aviation.

That is the irony. “The statistics underscore a year of tragic contrasts dominated by two Malaysian catastrophes and a handful of weather-related incidents, yet a record-low number of crashes,” says a Reuters report.

They say statistics lie and these lie baldly. Technically, even though as high as 920 people have lost their lives (including those on board the Indonesian flight) in the number of crashes per million flights this is the lowest in recent years. So, if you put it on to a graph, 2014 would be a good year for aviation safety. In fact, one could go as far as to say it was the safest year in modern history and still be seen
as accurate.

In 2005 the death toll was 1,014 passengers and crew.

It was the odd nature of the crashes in 2014 that caused the paradox. Two flights in the same region that went missing and though one has been found, they still remain a mystery in their catastrophic ends.

Yet, in the past three decades flying has become much safer. Thirty years ago, fatal accidents on commercial jetliners occurred approximately once for every 140 million miles flown. Today, it’s 1.4 billion miles flown for every fatal accident – a 10-fold safety improvement. There is no other hi-tech field that can boast such a steep improvement.

The one area which needs looking into is air traffic control. Much of the equipment in these towers in many countries is obsolete and badly funded. The hardworking controllers who burn out fast under the pressure are the unglamorous end of commercial aviation, but to them belongs the responsibility of keeping planes apart and landing and taking off without incident. And their backups, their electrical blank-outs and the general short shrift given to this vital section is an issue one wishes to speak about. Like no one does a story on how shabby conditions in some of the towers are and under what obsolete circumstances they function.

One report says: Even though we are often victims of negative publicity and those images stay with us, air travel and safety have been central to policy.

The international air transport association (IATA), the international civil aviation organisation (ICAO), the international federation of airline pilots associations (IFALPA), the flight safety foundation, manufacturers and others are working together to reduce the number of accidents. National governments around the world are reviewing an ICAO safety programme that will focus on safety-related “initiatives that offer the best safety dividends in terms of reducing the accident rate”. Several countries have established national programmes to tailor their safety programmes that best meet their needs. In the US, for example, airlines, aviation associations, labour unions, government agencies and manufacturers have joined the federal aviation administration (FAA) in a commercial aviation safety team (CAST) that is working to achieve an 80 percent reduction in fatal crashes.”

Unfortunately, aviation is a global non-boundary mode of travel and depends on its weakest link on any route. This link encompasses the best and the worst and this is where the rub lies. Regrettably, some airports are unsafe and poorly co-ordinated. Outdated equipment is only one of the problems. Language is another and communication between pilots and ATC, which is crucial to safety, is often a ‘hope we heard it right’ toss-up.

Again, contrary to general belief, aircraft often fly blind in that they are not in touch for large swathes of time with ground control. Although only 5 percent of the sky is used for traffic lanes there is a need for upgrading airfields and runways and bringing them on a par. Today, a flight can hop from a Cat III level airport to one that’s almost vintage in technology and this can disorient pilots, as landing and takeoff are the most sensitive parts of a flight. Often enough perimeter security is compromised by animals, domesticated and wild. In bad weather, aquaplaning caused by water on the runway creates a skid possibility. Birds are an ongoing hazard. The weather, clear air turbulence, wind shear add to the problems. Yet, planes take off and land at the rate of over 1,00,000 a day. In fact, 2014 is the first time the average of 1,00,000 was crossed with 37.4 million flights scheduled for the year. And they serve over 48,000 routes globally. According to one report, there are 1,397 commercial airlines out there, owning a total of 25,332 aircraft, which is why when Boeing and Airbus pretend to compete for the market they don’t want more than 50 percent because there is enough to go around. 

The story appeared in January 16-31, 2015, issue




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