The global major accident rate in 2011 for Western-built commercial jets was the lowest ever recorded, at 0.27 accidents per million departures.
Last year, the static accident rate that has existed for a decade started downward. And 2011 was the first year with no commercial jet loss of control accidents. The corporate jet fleet, which normally averages about 10 major accidents a year, showed an improvement, with seven major accidents in which 12 people died, compared with 18 fatalities in 2010.
Not all the data were so encouraging. The number of Eastern-built commercial jet accidents was above average.1 Four of the 14 commercial jet major accidents were controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), the largest number of this type of accident involving commercial jets in eight years. CFIT accidents continue to dominate the turboprop fatality numbers.
The commercial turboprop fleet had an average year, with 23 major accidents, just slightly below the five-year average of 23.4. Deaths in those accidents declined from 262 in 2010 to 177 last year.
In 2011, approximately 6 percent of the turbojet fleet was Eastern-built, while 21 percent of the turboprop fleet was Eastern-built. The commercial turbojet numbers increased approximately 2.5 percent from the 2010 numbers, while the commercial turboprop numbers grew 1 percent. As usual, the business jet numbers grew the greatest amount, approximately 3 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. That includes 40 percent of the Eastern-built commercial jet fleet. Approximately 15 percent of the turboprop fleet is inactive. Four percent of the business jets were inactive, the third year in a row that there were inactive business jets.
There were 14 major accidents involving commercial jets in 2011, killing 314 people, down from 564 in 2010.2 Eight of these involved Western-built aircraft. Eight major accidents were approach and landing accidents.3 There were four CFIT accidents. Two of the 14 commercial jet major accidents were runway excursions.
The past two years have not been good for Eastern-built commercial jets. From 2000 to 2009, they averaged 2.4 major accidents a year. In 2010, they accounted for four of the 19 major accidents, or 21 percent, and in 2011, six of 14, or 43 percent. Although Eastern-built commercial jets made up only 3 percent of the active commercial jet fleet in 2011, they accounted for 43 percent of the major accidents. This does not reflect directly on the safety of these aircraft, but does raise concerns about the operators, their regulators and the regions in which the aircraft were operating.
The major accident rate for Western-built commercial jet aircraft in 2011 was 0.27 accidents per million departures. This rate is a great improvement from the 0.57 rate for the past decade, and the 0.54 rate of 2010. The decreasing trend from the 1990s had leveled off in the last decade, but the rate again has an encouraging downward trend. This accident rate is 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 seven major accidents involving corporate jets in 2011, below the 2000–2011 average of 9.9 per year. Although accurate worldwide exposure data are not available for corporate jets, the number of aircraft and the number of departures have been increasing steadily, so their accident rate is estimated to be decreasing.
There were 23 major accidents involving Western- and Eastern-built commercial turboprop aircraft with more than 14 seats in 2011. This is almost identical to the average of 23.4 over the previous five years.
The most significant safety challenge for commercial turboprops continues to be CFIT accidents. Over the previous three years, 18 of the 70 turboprop major accidents, or 26 percent, were CFIT. To put it another way, one of every four turboprop major accidents involved CFIT. CFIT has not been eliminated in commercial jets, but the industry is making progress in reducing it. For turboprops, it is not the same positive story.
The worst year in the past eight years for commercial jet CFIT accidents was 2011. None of the eight commercial aircraft involved in a CFIT accident in 2011 — jets and turboprops combined — had a functioning terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS). In fact, in the more than 50 commercial aircraft CFIT accidents over the past five years involving jets and turboprops, only two of the aircraft were equipped with TAWS. In both cases, the TAWS functioned normally and gave the flight crews sufficient warning of the impending CFIT accident.
As has been the case for the past 25 years, CFIT, approach and landing, and loss of control continue to account for the majority of accidents and cause the majority of fatalities. As identified in Flight Safety Foundation’s early work on approach and landing accidents, unstabilized approaches and a failure to go around when warranted are major risk factors.
Failure to go around was a factor in 83 percent of approach and landing accidents,4 and it was the leading cause of landing runway excursions.5 Data show a consistent, disturbing trend. From multiple studies involving millions of flights, we know that 3 to 4 percent of all approaches are unstabilized. These same data reveal that more than nine of every 10 unstabilized approaches continue to landing. To address this challenge, the Foundation has developed safe landing guidelines (see, “Keys to a Safe Arrival”). These are an extension of the Foundation’s 20-year approach and landing accident reduction (ALAR) effort and came about after the completion of the recent runway excursion risk reduction project. That project revealed some gaps that were not addressed sufficiently in the ALAR effort.
The Foundation does not advocate that the safe landing guidelines be copied and handed out to crews. They should be used as their title indicates — as guidelines for an organization to use, in conjunction with information from its aircraft manufacturer, to create its own rules and policy. Every operator should have a standard operating procedure (SOP) addressing this high-risk area and should monitor its operational data to determine the effectiveness of its SOP.
James M. Burin is Flight Safety Foundation’s director of technical projects.
- “Eastern-built” means manufactured in the Soviet Union, its satellite countries, the Russian Federation or China.
- The data include all scheduled and unscheduled passenger and cargo operations for Western- and Eastern-built commercial jet aircraft.
- The Jan. 9 accident is not considered an approach and landing accident because it seems to have been caused by fuel exhaustion.
- “Killers in Aviation: FSF Task Force Presents Facts About Approach-and-landing and Controlled-flight-into-terrain Accidents.” Flight Safety Digest 17(11–12)/18(1–2). November–December 1998/January–February 1999.
- Flight Safety Foundation. “Reducing the Risk of Runway Excursions.” June 2009.