Global Airline Accidents, Fatalities on Pace for Record Low

The global airline-accident rate is on pace this year to reach the lowest recorded, according to a trade group.

This year’s rate of accidents serious enough to destroy an airplane was, through November, 52 percent lower than the average for the previous five full years, according to statistics compiled by the International Air Transport Association.

The 2011 rate of 0.34 accidents per million flights is the lowest since World War II, when the modern airline industry began, Perry Flint, IATA’s Washington-based spokesman, said in an interview. It is 68 percent less than the 1.05 rate in 2001.

“This is a long-term trend,” Flint said. “2011 is not some kind of anomaly.”

The number of deaths in airline accidents globally are at the lowest levels since 2006, the first year for which IATA reported data in that category on its website. Through November, 486 people had died in air crashes, compared with the previous low of 502 in 2008.

IATA represents airlines including Aer Lingus (AERL) in Ireland, Air France (AF) and US Airways Group Inc. (LCC)

One year of data should be approached with caution because trends in aviation safety take many years to develop, Kevin Darcy, a director of RTI Forensics in San Francisco and former chief accident investigator for Boeing Co. (BA), said in an interview. RTI performs engineering consulting on aviation and marine accidents.

Still, technological improvements in the manufacture of aircraft and safety devices introduced during the past two decades have almost eliminated some types of accidents, Darcy said.

Africa Safer

Cockpit databases that track a plane’s location and warn pilots when they get too close to mountaintops or other obstructions have made rare what were once causes of many accidents, Darcy said.

Other safety systems have helped reduce mid-air collisions and wind-shear crashes, he said.

Africa remains the most dangerous region to fly, according to the IATA data. There were 3.93 serious accidents per million flights through November. That level was 29 percent less than the average for the previous five years.

Latin America was the second-most dangerous with 1.43 accidents per million flights, IATA said.

Europe and North Asia had no serious accidents this year, according to IATA.

Not Counted

There’s been one serious accident in about 10 million flights in North America, according to the group’s data. That crash of a First Air chartered Boeing 737-200 in Resolute, Canada, killed 12 people on Aug. 20, according to AviationSafetyNetwork, a website that reports accidents. First Air is owned by 9,000 Inuit of northern Quebec.

IATA’s data tracks crashes involving scheduled and nonscheduled carriers on Western-built aircraft. The year-end numbers won’t include today’s accident in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in which a Soviet-made Tupolev Tu-134 crashed while trying to land. At least seven people were injured after the plane broke apart and caught fire, according to AviationSafetyNetwork, citing local news reports.

Fuselage Tear

The IATA definition of a serious accident also doesn’t include some incidents that aviation investigators consider dangerous. For example, a Southwest Airlines Co. (LUV) Boeing 737 that lost a five-foot section of fuselage skin April 1 over Arizona isn’t included because the damage wasn’t sufficient to destroy the jet.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board considered the incident serious enough to hold a public hearing earlier this year. The tear was traced to a manufacturing error, the NTSB has said.

The most common type of serious accident occurs when an airplane goes off a runway during takeoff or landing, according to a Dec. 7 presentation by Gunther Matschnigg, IATA’s senior vice president for safety, operations and infrastructure.

Those accidents accounted for 23 percent of serious crashes, Matschnigg said.

“IATA understands that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in this area,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at alevin24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net

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