2014 airline safety? Numbers are deceiving

January 03, 2015

There is no doubt 2014 was a bad year for airline safety with some of the most tragic and bizarre incidents in modern history but the numbers can be deceiving.

Certainly 21 fatal accidents with 986 fatalities — higher than the 10-year average — sicken. However, the world’s airlines carried a record 3.3 billion passengers on 27 million flights.

Flashback 50 years there were a staggering 87 crashes killing 1597 globally when airlines carried only 141 million passengers — 5 per cent of today’s number.

And the A320 in the Indonesia AirAsia crash has a crash rate five times better than the Boeing 727 that was the new kid on the block in 1964.

Another twist is that fatal accidents for 2014 were at a record low 21 — one for every 1.3 million flights. Most of those accidents were in Third World nations.

Though the statistics paint a reassuring picture, the public is nonetheless nervous, with almost 60 per cent of travellers having some fear of flying.

Read: Who are the  top 10 safest airlines?

Crashes last year, however, were different.

The two major ones involving Malaysia Airlines’ Boeing 777s were freak events with total loss of life. And MH370 has not been found and investigators battled for months to recover wreckage of MH17. Global media attention has been intense, reflecting natural public interest and that is going to continue this year.

And finding it will only be the start of an extremely difficult recovery. And the search for answers will probably go on for years.

Aside from these extraordinary crashes, there is a mystique to flight fuelled by social media and the advent of platforms such as the iPhone with pictures or videos of the slightest aviation incident going viral.

The impact of social media on reporting events is staggering. Ten per cent of all pictures taken in history were shot last year and half of those on mobiles. Passengers have even taken pictures of incidents in-flight and broadcast them on their phones.

The fear of flying is also fuelled by the popular Air Crash Investigation or Air Emergency series. As good as the series is, it is not always accurate, and does not in many cases explain what has changed in aviation to prevent a reoccurrence of the tragedy.

But there is no question flying is safer and one of the reasons is the International Air Transport Association’s Operational Safety Audit introduced in 2003. Since 2003, 402 airlines have completed the comprehensive audit and those airlines’ crash rate is 77 per cent lower than airlines that do not do the audit. Completing IOSA every two years is a condition of joining IATA, the leading industry body.

An IOSA audit examines every aspect of an airline’s safety — on the ground and in the air — and ensures it has industry best practice with a continuous expert safety review process. It also ensures the airline has the systems to keep up with the latest safety developments. Many airlines that are not in the IATA take part in the audit.

But AirAsia is one of the big airlines that have not taken part.

Passenger jets are divided into four broad categories related mainly to cockpit technology.

In the first generation were early jets such as the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 of the 1960s, followed by the 747 with analogue cockpits crammed with dials. The next generation was led by planes such as the Boeing 767, where some analogue functions gave way to the digital age.

But the big breakthrough was pioneered in the mid-80s by the Airbus A320, which introduced the “glass cockpit”. Hundreds of analogue dials were replaced by five video screens, slashing pilot workload up to 70 per cent in some cases.

Safety rates improved dramatically. The fourth generation takes in planes such as the A330, 777 and 787.

For those who want the ultimate in cockpit technology, the 787 and new A350 have the entire bells and whistles as standard.

Previously aircraft manufacturers would offer some of the more sophisticated cockpit technology as options that would then be at the whim of an airline accountant’s pen.

But there is no whim about personal safety, and there is no question that the three major crashes of 2014 will have travellers looking at options more carefully.