It now is apparent that 2013 will go down as one of the safest years in aviation history, particularly in terms of the number of fatalities in commercial air transport operations. According to preliminary data released by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the number of fatalities suffered in scheduled commercial operations fell by more than 50 percent in 2013 from the previous year, despite the fact that the number of fatal accidents remained the same year over year (see “Another Record Year”).
The numbers don’t match up exactly because different organizations include or exclude different types of aircraft from different types of operations in tabulating accidents and calculating accident rates, but the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) had a similar message: the number fatalities suffered worldwide last year was down significantly from the yearly average for the period 2003–2012. While EASA’s calculations also had the number of fatal accidents declining last year, the relative decrease in fatalities far outpaced the drop in fatal accidents.
We haven’t done an in-depth statistical analysis, but I think there is growing evidence that supports the idea that when fatal accidents occur, more passengers and crew are surviving those accidents than ever. In part, this likely is due to the type of accidents that are occurring. Crashes on approach and landing are more survivable than controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). According to ICAO, seven of the nine fatal accidents it counted last year were during the approach or go-around phases of flight. But credit also is due to the way airplanes are designed, built and certificated, from the strength of the seats, to the materials used in the cabin, to the training of crews.
Unfortunately, the decline in fatalities is not shared evenly across all operational types. In his “Year in Review” article in the February issue of AeroSafety World, Foundation Fellow Jim Burin noted that the 22 major turboprop accidents in 2013 were about average for that sector of the industry and represented a modest regression from 2012’s record year. In releasing limited data on the safety performance last year of its member carriers, the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) said that turboprop operations maintained a good safety record but “continue to experience somewhat higher accident rates compared to larger jet aircraft operations.”
Andrew Herdman, AAPA director general, went as far as to say that “… greater attention also needs to be focused on turboprop aircraft operations. We need firm regulation to ensure that all carriers operate to the highest international standards, including wide deployment of automated terrain awareness warnings systems (TAWS) for all commercial operations.”
According to Burin, over the past several years, there have been 38 CFIT accidents involving 14 turbojet airplanes and 24 turboprops. Of those 38 aircraft, only three were equipped with operating TAWS and in those three cases, the system provided 30 seconds or more of warning of the impending collision with the ground.