A Worrying Trend Air Safety Plunges in First Half of 2009
Passenger flights have grown safer each decade since the Wright Brothers first flew more than a century ago. But the number of dead in crashes during the first half of 2009 threatens to disrupt this trend. Experts say the number of smaller accidents appears to be increasing.
When it comes to safety, there are few success stories as glowing as that of the aviation industry. That the accident rate would decline each decade on civilian airlines has become almost as much of a given as the fact that computer chips get faster with each new generation. This has been the rule since the Wright Brothers first took flight with their motorized airplane in 1903.
Debris, belonging to crashed Air France flight AF447.
Of course, we have arrived at an extremely high level of flight safety -- and it is harder these days to improve it than it was in the past. Nevertheless, few of the recent accidents actually happened because of incalculable factors like bad weather or bird strikes, as proved to be the case in the emergency water landing of a US Airways Airbus aircraft in January on New York's Hudson River.
Still, for a major airline like Lufthansa, which has more than 2,000 takeoffs and landings per day, it is difficult to remain below that average accident rate. A single crash can push an airline above it. Air France is a case in point. So far, according to the official figures collected by the International Air Transport Association, the French carrier has had an average accident rate of 0.9 percent -- very close to the global average according to IATA's statistics. However, if you look solely at the airline's fleet of Airbus aircraft, like the A330 involved in the recent crash on a flight between Rio and Paris, that figure rises.
An advisory committee to the European Union is calling for the accident rate to be reduced by a further 80 percent by the year 2020. During the first six months of 2009, however, the airlines didn't make much progress toward that goal. Indeed, it was a bad six months for flight safety. According to Flight International statistics, 499 people died in accidents on passenger jets -- a greater number in the same period than any year since 2002 (when 716 died).
And those figures don't even include the recent Caspian Airlines and Aria Air crashes, both in Iran, during the month of June that claimed 184 lives. These disasters will first be calculated during the third quarter. The reason for the exceptionally high casualties this year is the crash of two large jets -- an Air France plane and another from Yemenia Airways. For the first six months of this year alone, the accident rate is already 50 percent higher than the total annual average in the first six months of the past 10 years.
Another contributing factor was the February crash of a Turkish Airlines plane in Amsterdam in February. A faulty altimeter incorrectly indicated the plane was just two meters above the runway, leading the aircraft's computers to reduce the jet thrust. The pilots overlooked the discrepancy -- perhaps because they had blind faith in the onboard computers. The Boeing 737 crashed prematurely into a field just short of the runway, killing nine passengers.
Flight International is predicting a new security debate soon. "The issue of humans and highly automated aircraft will rise on the agenda," the paper predicts.
It will be difficult to compensate for the rapidly rising number of flights today with additional safety measures. The number of smaller incidents and near accidents has risen, says one safety expert at a major airline. For every crash or accident that results in human injury, according to the rule of thumb, there are hundreds of accidents with material damage as well as smaller incidents. "At this lower level, we are seeing a growing trend," the insider says.
The main cause is the loss of control of the aircraft -- a broad category with many subgroups of problems: The crew got distracted, was disoriented or was unable to get enough propulsion during a touch-and-go takeoff. It would be easy to write these things off as pilot error, but in many cases it has been proven that the pilots weren't given training for such situations.
The minimum standards required by legislators in pilot training, apparently, don't include all of these situations. And the ruinous degree of competition between airlines translates to a situation where many airlines are less motivated to invest in additional capabilities for their pilots.
Editor's note: On Friday, SPIEGEL ONLINE will run this week's SPIEGEL cover story: "When the Onboard Computer Crashes," exploring the new risks created by highly automated cockpits in today's passenger jets.