2017: The Safest Year in Aviation History

January 3, 2018

One. Of the more than two billion people who flew commercially last year worldwide, that’s the number who were killed in airline accidents. One person. That unfortunate soul was a passenger on board an ATR turboprop that crashed after takeoff in Canada in December. Twenty-four others on the plane survived.

Thus 2017 becomes the safest year in the history of civil aviation.

It was 2013 that held that honor previously, but the fact is that flying has become so safe that year-over-year comparisons are increasingly academic. Instead of playing the same game every January, it’s better to look from a wider, more macro perspective. What we see is a trend that began about thirty years ago, and has since reached the point where air safety, as we know it, and what we now expect of it, has been radically transformed.

It’s a little like global warming: the entire paradigm has shifted, with every year squeaking just ahead of the previous one as the new record-breaker. Disasters still occur from time to time (see Malaysia Airlines), and there are ups and downs of statistical correction. But the safety bar, so to speak, is in a totally different place.

There are so many intriguing ways to quantify this. And while this is a global story that airlines the world over can be proud of, here are four statistics that Americans, in particular, can savor:

1. The last fatal airliner accident on U.S. soil was the Asiana Airlines crash landing in San Francisco in 2013. Three teenage girls were killed in that incident, one of whom was struck by a rescue vehicle.

2. The last fatal accident involving a U.S. carrier of any kind was the Colgan Air (Continental Connection) tragedy outside Buffalo, in 2009, in which fifty people were killed.

3. The last fatality involving a U.S. major carrier was a Southwest Airlines mishap in Chicago in 2005, in which a 737 slid from a snowy runway and collided with a car, killing a young boy.

4. And perhaps the most remarkable stat of them all is this one: the last fatal accident involving one of the “big three” U.S. majors — that’s American, United, and Delta — was, — wait for it now — the crash of American flight 587 in November, 2001. That’s right, sixteen years ago. Not all that long ago, the idea that our biggest airlines, each of which records thousands of departures every day of the week, could, combined, go the better part of two decades without a single crash, would have been unthinkable. This is arguably the most impressive accomplishment in American aviation history.

It wasn’t always like this.

In decades past, one or two crashes every year involving one or more of the mainline U.S. carriers was considered normal, even expected. And in other regions of the globe the numbers could be staggering.

Consider for a moment the year 1985. During that one year, 27 major crashes around the world resulted in the deaths of almost 2,400 people! These included the Air-India bombing over the North Atlantic, with 329 casualties, and, two months later, the crash of Japan Airlines flight 123 outside Tokyo, with 520 dead. These, the second and fifth-most deadly accidents in aviation history, happened 49 days apart! Also in ’85 were the Arrow Air disaster in Newfoundland that killed 240 U.S. servicemen, the infamous British Airtours 737 fire, and the crash of an L-1011 in Dallas that killed 137.

And we’re still not finished. 1985 was also the year of the TWA flight 847 hijacking.

Sure, that was an unusually bad twelve months, but it wasn’t entirely out of synch with how things used to be.

When I was in sixth grade, in the late 1970s, I started keeping newspaper clippings of plane crashes. Whenever there was an accident, anywhere in the world, I would snip the related articles from the paper and put them into a shirt box. By the end of junior high, that box was jammed full. Six, nine, ten, even a dozen catastrophes every year had been the norm.


The big question is, how did we get here?

No, it has nothing to do with Donald Trump, who this week shocked absolutely nobody by taking credit for the good news in a typically preposterous Twitter message. “Since taking office I have been very strict on commercial aviation,” Trump tweeted. Whatever policies or measures he’s referring to, they exist only in his imagination and are better left unexplored. In typical fashion, instead of congratulating the thousands of professionals who helped make this happen, he congratulated himself, having done virtually nothing.

There are three very real things, on the other hand, we can thank, all of which precede Trump’s presidency:

The first is better crew training: the advent of crew resource management (CRM), for example, and substantial enhancements to cockpit culture, hierarchy and oversight.

Almost as critical has been a raft of improved aircraft technologies: things like TCAS, enhanced GPWS, windshear detection, cargo fire suppression, and so on.

And thirdly — and naive as this will sound to some — we’ve had the collaborative efforts between air carriers, regulators, and organizations like ICAO, ALPA, and other advocacy groups. These people and organizations, often with very conflicting missions and priorities, have, for the most part figured out a way to work together. The specifics here are varied and expansive, from the standardization of runway markings and air traffic control protocols to substance abuse programs. In the U.S., the FAA finally got smart and tightened the hiring standards for regional pilots, and, in a move that was long overdue, strengthened flight, rest and duty time restrictions.

And, okay, we’ve been lucky, too. I’ve been knocking on wood since the first paragraph. And a dearth of headline tragedies does not mean we should rest on our laurels. Complacency is about the worst response we could have. Air safety is all about being proactive — even a little cynical. We need to keep this going.

A quarter century ago, as air travel was beginning to grow rapidly, and the number of aircraft was expected to double or even triple (it since has, and may do so again in our lifetimes), experts warned of a tipping point. Unless certain deficiencies were addressed, we were told, disasters would become epidemic. Some of the scarier analyses were predicting a major crash occurring every week by the early 2000s. Fortunately they were addressed, and the end result is that we’ve effectively engineered away what used to be the most common causes of crashes.

Indeed the global-ness of this trend has been maybe its most notable aspect. It’s one thing that planes aren’t crashing in North America or Europe, but they’re not crashing anywhere, really. Not in India or China, where aviation has been growing exponentially and where the highest levels of concern were. Not in Asia, not in Africa, not in South America. Are all these regions equally safe? Of course not. But they’re all safe.

It’s a little ironic, too, for a couple of reasons:

For one, surfing the Web or clicking on the television, you almost wouldn’t know that any of this has happened. On the contrary, the media’s habit — and by media I’m referring to both commercial and social media — of over-hyping and over-dramatizing even the most minor malfunction or precautionary landing, has convinced many people that accidents are in fact happening more frequently, and that flying has become more dangerous, when exactly the opposite is true.

And then we have people’s attitudes toward flying in general. It’s hard to overestimate the levels of hate and contempt people have for the airlines, and while a lot of that sentiment is well-earned, let’s take a minute to acknowledge the enormous strides they’ve made when comes to what is arguably the most important metric of them all.

Say what you want about flying; there’s no denying that it’s become vastly safer. And this new normal is something we can all, well, live with.

 
 

Asterisks:

On the very last day of 2017, in Costa Rica, twelve people died in the crash of a chartered, single-engine Cessna belonging to the company Nature Air. And, last January in Kyrgyzstan, 39 people were killed in the crash of a 747 freighter.

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28 Responses to “2017: The Safest Year in Aviation History”
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  1. What about it guys..
    In decades past, one or two crashes every year involving one or more of the mainline U.S. carriers was considered normal, even expected. And in other regions of the globe the numbers could be staggering.

  2. Edward Tomlinson says:

    Why somebody like “Art Knight” is allowed to hiss & spit here about how wonderful the present occupant of the WH is and every now & then letting us know that he hated and still hates President Obama is of course your business-but I for one will not be stopping by your website anymore.

  3. Art Knight says:

    There was a huge solar flare this week. That’s right! The sun farted at us. NPR, nobody, no one has instigated a war on the sun. I’m outraged! The sun MUST BE REGULATED IMMEDIATELY! Hopefully by Nancy Pelosi. She seems so smart and all.

  4. Art Knight says:

    We are so powerful. We CAN change the climate. We can do all that, but we can’t keep cowlings on our engines. We can’t keep planes in the sky. But, we CAN stop the Earth from being Earth. We can stop it from changing from PANGEA. We need to get working on putting the continents back together. Fuck keeping an airplane from crashing into the field of dirt and exploding into an orange and black ball of fire stinking of kerosene. Let’s stop the continents moving.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbGGMOkgd_w

  5. Art Knight says:

    The flight data recorder says the pilots did not turn on the pitot heat. Unlike the Air France 447 pilots, they understood that the auto-pilot could not function without airspeed data. They switched auto-pilot off, but apparently did not know how to fly. They flew at a 30 degree angle into the ground. Were they confused by the attitude indicator? Buddy Holly’s pilot was confused by the AI. He thought up was down and flew directly into a field.

  6. Art Knight says:

    United 1175 a Boeing 777 lost the front cowling on it’s starboard-side engine. I think I know the cause. https://i.imgflip.com/xl91z.jpg

  7. Art Knight says:

    Initial reports indicate the AN-148 may have suffered the same fate as Air France 447 when its Pitot Tubes iced-over, delivering inaccurate air-speed information. Was it a faulty design or did the pilots simply neglect to turn the heaters on?

  8. Benedict Miller says:

    I for one am very happy and proud of the American aviation industry for this outstanding accomplishment.

    That said, your partisan snipe at the President was unnecessary and mean spirited. I do fully support you ability to express this, however, and overall appreciate your work.

  9. Art Knight says:

    And today we have a Russian AN-148 falling out of the sky. With it’s over-sized looking engines and anhedral wings, it looks like it is saying “I dare you to knock me out of the sky!” It looks ugly, but super-stable. They have both recorders and have ruled out terrorism, so we will know exactly what happened.

  10. Art Knight says:

    I can’t blame Barry for AMTRAK, but holy moly! Who would ride that thing. I remember as a college kid I had no car and had to take it to Champaign-Urbana and to visit my siblings at SIU Carbondale. We stopped every trip because we hit a cow or a vehicle. Now the ACELA is zipping around at 125 MPH and the connectors are failing. How the hell is this still allowed? I know they are somehow subsidized, because they suck so badly at business, they can’t make a profit. Does anyone know how much we pay AMCRASH to kill people?

  11. Art Knight says:

    Thank you for making the skies safer Donald John Trump! But more importantly, thank you for repealing the Obama fine. Last year Barry raped me on my 1040 Sleazy $579 for “Health Care: individual responsibility.” I received ZERO Health CARE. In fact, the least expensive health plan that I was ALLOWED to purchase cost me $4,000 in premiums and fees, BEFORE I could even request a benefit. That means, at $9.00 an hour I had to work nearly THREE MONTHS just to pay for this Obama care. I did not feel CARED for.

    This year…I am receiving a refund of my own damned money in the amount of $394 from the Federal Government. Uncle Don. I didn’t vote for Mr. Trump last time, but if he runs again, I sure will.

  12. Simon Farnsworth says:

    One thing that underpins a lot of the improvements; it’s not acceptable in aviation to dismiss a crash as “human error”. Accident investigation boards want to know why the human error happened, and whether there’s a reasonable change that could have been made to prevent human error happening again.

    This results in a ratcheting up of safety standards – each time an incident happens, the piloting “UX” is improved so that pilots have to made bigger mistakes to crash the plane. Eventually, we get to a point where the degree of mistake required is so large that no trained pilot would make that mistake without their copilot noticing and ensuring that it’s corrected before any bad happens.

    So, something pilots’ unions fought for (to keep aircraft manufacturers and airlines from blaming pilots for things outside their control) has had the side-effect of improving safety for everyone who flies.

  13. Edward Spafard says:

    What a GREAT article. Now if we can fix the land transportation, life would be great.

  14. Patrick W says:

    Does anyone realistically think that removing pilots and making airplanes fully robotic will actually improve this impressive record?

  15. Carlos Si says:

    One thing left out is what was the last time there was a significant incident (even if non-fatal) involving a carrier, not something too benign, but perhaps something like the Delta MD88 (and also) the Southwest 737 at La Guardia, one involving snow, the other regarding nosegear touching down first. Perhaps the next step is to ensure /potentially/ dangerous incidents don’t happen at all? The former is similar to th Midway Southwest flight, minus the one fatality.

  16. BroTim says:

    Well said Patrick. Flying IS safer today. We should be proud of the advances we’ve made to make it happen. And yes, Trump had nothing to do with it.

  17. Similar with hijackings.
    In the 1970s and 1980s, there used to be one every week.

  18. Speed says:

    I have great respect for the skill and discipline of the pilots up front as well as the organizations that Patrick highlights. But, lets not forget that the policies, procedures and skills involved in maintaining todays fleet of brand new and not-so-new aircraft also play an important role in keeping airlines safe.

  19. mitch says:

    It’s all Trump’s doing. Just ask him.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/02/us/politics/fact-check-trump-aviation-safety.html?_r=0

    https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2018/01/02/us/politics/02reuters-aviation-safety-trump.html

    All this was accomplished by the pool at mar-a-lago, taking just a few minutes every day he was there.

  20. Navjot says:

    Is that a 757 or 767 cockpit in the header image? Hard to tell apart.

  21. Excellent review Patrick. Your ability to synthesize and put into perspective the huge monumental changes in commercial aviation and in the public perception of makes a valuable contribution. I wish everyone reporting on the subject had to read your post first.

  22. Dave Morrell says:

    I the ZERO statistic is limited to commercial jets. There were numerous accidents involving other commercial aircraft that involved fatalities in 2017.

  23. Dave Hall says:

    Depending on whether the numbers refer only to fatalities in the crash or due to the crash, there may actually be one. Unfortunately one of the victims of the West Winds ATR-42 that crashed earlier in December at Fond du Lac, Saskatchewan, Canada passed away just after Christmas. http://thestarphoenix.com/news/local-news/19-year-old-man-dead-after-fond-du-lac-airliner-crash

  24. Michael Gerard Kennedy says:

    You’re welcome! (20+ years airline pilot instructor here)