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Current Issue

Leveling off


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Commercial jet accident rates were good in 2010, just not better.
 

By James Burin

The trend of an impressive but non-improving safety record continued in 2010.

The accident rate for commercial jets in 2010 was 0.54 major accidents per million departures. That was almost identical to the average rate of 0.55 for the previous five years and slightly better than the 0.57 rate for the previous decade. Five of the 19 major commercial jet accidents — two controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents, two loss of control (LOC) accidents and one runway excursion accident — accounted for 96 percent of the fatalities.

The business jet fleet, which normally averages about 10 major accidents a year, had a good year, with only eight major accidents. The commercial turboprop fleet had its best year ever in terms of number of major accidents, but CFIT accidents continue to dominate the turboprop accident and fatality numbers.

Approximately 6 percent of the turbojet fleet is Eastern-built, while 20 percent of the turboprop fleet is ­Eastern-built. The commercial turbojet numbers increased approximately 2 percent from 2009, and the commercial turboprop numbers grew almost 2 percent, the first time in several years they have shown an increase. As usual, the business jet numbers increased the most, approximately 4 percent. These numbers reflect the total fleets. The active fleets, the aircraft actually in service, are somewhat smaller. Approximately 9 percent of the turbojet fleet is inactive, and that number is growing. Approximately 14 percent of the turboprop fleet is inactive. Four percent of the business jets were inactive, the second year in a row that there were more than just a few inactive business jets.

There were 19 major accidents involving commercial jet operations in 2010, which includes all scheduled and unscheduled passenger and cargo operations for Western- and Eastern-built commercial jet aircraft. Fifteen of these involved Western-built aircraft. Fifteen of the 19 major accidents were approach and landing accidents (ALAs). There were two CFIT accidents and two LOC accidents. Five of the 19 commercial jet major accidents were runway excursions.

The major accident rate for Western-built commercial jets has virtually leveled off, as has the five-year running average. These accident rates are only for Western-built aircraft because even though we know the number of major accidents for Eastern-built aircraft, we do not have reliable worldwide exposure data to calculate rates for them.

There were only eight major accidents involving corporate jets in 2010. A comparison with the yearly number of corporate jet major accidents since 2001 highlights the fact that corporate jets had an excellent year safety-wise.

Although worldwide exposure data are not available for corporate jets, the number of aircraft and the number of departures have been increasing steadily throughout the decade, so their accident rate is estimated to be decreasing.

There were 20 major accidents involving Western- and Eastern-built commercial turboprop aircraft with more than 14 seats in 2010. This is the lowest-ever number of major accidents for turboprops. The most significant safety challenge for commercial turboprops continues to be CFIT accidents. In 2008, seven of the 29 turboprop major accidents were CFIT accidents. In 2009, seven of the 21 turboprop major accidents were CFIT accidents. For 2010, four of the 20 turboprop major accidents were CFITs. CFIT has not been eliminated among commercial jets, but we are making progress in reducing it. The story is not so positive for turboprops.

As in the past 20 years, CFIT, ALA, and LOC accidents continue to account for the majority of accidents and cause the majority of fatalities. Normally, ALAs account for 50 to 60 percent of the major accidents each year for any type of aircraft (commercial jets, business jets, turboprops or general aviation). In 2010, there was an unusually high percentage of ALAs involving commercial jets and business jets. The recently released updated Approach and Landing Accident Reduction (ALAR) Tool Kit will, it is hoped, help reduce the risk of this type of accident. In 2010, ALAR training using the updated tool kit was conducted in Singapore; Manila, Philippines; Bangkok, Thailand; and Tripoli, Libya.

The number of CFIT accidents involving commercial jet aircraft since 1998 shows the slow but positive progress we are making in reducing the risk. In the past two years, we have suffered the first CFIT accidents involving aircraft with functioning terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS). In those cases, the TAWS functioned normally and gave the flight crews sufficient warning of the impending CFIT accident. Those warnings, however, were not acted upon with enough urgency to prevent the disasters.

In 2006, LOC accidents took over from CFIT as the leading killer in commercial aviation. Unfortunately, that class of accidents is lengthening its lead. Unlike with CFIT, we have never had a year with zero LOC accidents.

The term “loss of control” actually does not accurately describe many of the accidents. About half of recent “loss of control” accidents have been what is more accurately described as “lack of control” (LAC)accidents because the crews had full control of the aircraft at all times.1 Since LOC accidents are normally not survivable, even a low number of LOC accidents usually results in a high number of fatalities. The two LOC accidents in 2010 accounted for over one-third of the total commercial jet fatalities for the year.

Some common elements are emerging in many of the loss or lack of control accidents. First, the autopilot is normally involved. Either the crew thinks it is on and it is not, or they try to turn it on and it will not engage. Second, there are no visual references — for example, in instrument meteorological conditions or at night with few or no outside visual references. Finally, many times the pilot monitoring is aware of the deteriorating situation, but waits too long or is unable to relay this information to the pilot flying.

The Foundation’s goal is “to make aviation safer by reducing the risk of an accident.” We have achieved great success toward that goal, but as can be seen from the recent safety record, there are still challenges to be addressed. The commercial jet accident rate is low and very impressive, but it has stopped improving. CFIT continues to be a challenge for commercial turboprops, and loss of control accidents continue to dominate the fatality numbers for commercial jets. In an industry where risk will never be zero, we face the public’s expectation of perfection as the minimum acceptable standard. However, the aviation industry continues to successfully address that challenge and is constantly working to make aviation safer by reducing the risk of an accident.

Note
 

  1. The Foundation uses this definition of an LOC accident: “An accident in which an aircraft is unintentionally flown into a position from which the crew is unable to recover due to aircrew, aircraft, environmental or a combination of these factors.” This is the definition of an LAC accident: “An accident in which a fully controllable aircraft is unintentionally flown into a position from which the crew is unable to recover. A ‘fully controllable aircraft’ responds to control inputs in an appropriate manner.”

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