Despite recent plane crashes, overall safety record is improving

Flying Safety

September 25, 2005|By Jane Engle

The recent spate of air crashes could cause anyone to wonder about the safety of flying.

With at least four accidents that together claimed more than 300 lives, August was the deadliest month for commercial aviation in more than three years. It was also notable for a spectacular accident in which an Air France Airbus overshot a Toronto runway and caught fire; no one died.

On Sept. 5, the toll grew by 149 when a Mandala Airlines 737-200 crashed into a densely populated area in Medan, on Sumatra in Indonesia.

This string of fatalities, mostly on small foreign carriers, was undeniably tragic and troubling. But aviation experts say it is not a trend. Flying, if anything, is getting safer, they say, and they have statistics to prove it.

"We've had a bad August," said David Learmount, operations and safety editor for Flight International, a weekly aerospace magazine published in London. "But it was a weird little spike in a trend of continuous improvement."

When I asked Learmount, who has tracked the industry for 25 years, how worried I should be, he said: "Less than you have ever been worried before."

From 1979 to 2004, the average rate of fatal air accidents worldwide fell from three per 1 million flights to about one-sixth that level, he said, citing statistics from the International Civil Aviation Organization, which runs under the auspices of the United Nations.

American carriers did far better. As of two years ago, they averaged just one fatal accident per 16 million flights, he added.

At these rates, if you're afraid of flying, "you've got a problem, and you should see a shrink," Learmount said.

Some other observers aren't as sanguine. They see threats on the horizon from airlines' growing practice of outsourcing jet maintenance, often abroad, where monitoring repairs and procedures may be difficult.

Even if flying overall is safe, Learmount said, some carriers are more prone to problems than others, relatively speaking.

So I asked him how passengers could minimize their chances of winding up on troubled airlines. "Just use your common sense," he replied. Plus apply a few basic principles:

If you haven't heard of it, don't fly it. The airlines that logged the recent fatal accidents, Learmount noted, were hardly household names.

They included Tunisia's Tuninter, whose plane crashed Aug. 6 off Sicily, killing 16; a Cyprus-registered Helios Airways jet that went down Aug. 14 in Greece, killing 121; a charter operated by Colombia's West Caribbean Airways, which crashed Aug. 16 in Venezuela, killing 160; and TANS Peru, whose Boeing 737-200 crash-landed Aug. 23, killing at least 40.

Obscure, smaller airlines, especially in less developed countries, may not have the same safety standards or equipment as in the United States or Western Europe, Learmount said.

Even regional U.S. carriers, on average, have poorer records than the majors, he said, partly because they may use less sophisticated planes and airports and make frequent short runs.

The U.S. has a strong safety culture, in his view, because passengers demand it and because airlines face fines or even the loss of their licenses if they violate safety regulations.

Check the Web site of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. The site, faa.gov, shows which countries' civil aviation authorities meet standards, set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, for regulating airline safety.

The most recent list I found, dated Aug. 8, listed 25 countries and one multistate association in so-called Category 2 -- those that fell short of these standards.

Six of these were in Africa, 14 in the Western Hemisphere (including the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, covering several island nations); three in Europe (Bulgaria, Serbia-Montenegro and Ukraine); two in the Western Pacific (Kiribati and Nauru); and one in Asia (Bangladesh).

Among the Western Hemisphere nations in Category 2 were Argentina, Ecuador and Guatemala. Among those in Africa were Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana and Zimbabwe.

Learmount says he likes the FAA's list because it sheds light on the safety culture of a nation and it's easy to understand -- a simple pass-fail standard.

Airlines from Category 2 nations can still fly into the U.S., the FAA says, but they cannot start new service or expand their flights here. And their planes may be subject to more stringent inspections here.

To find the list, go to faa.gov, click on the "Safety" tab, select "International Aviation Safety Assessment" and click on "Results." (You'll need a Microsoft Excel program to call up the spreadsheet.)

Look up the airline on the Web site of the International Air Transport Association. This group, which began licensing audits of airlines four years ago, lists those that have met its standards at iata.org/iosa/registry.

Jane Engle writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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