In this image provided by Riccardo Dalla Francesca shows smoke rises from a fire on a plane at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Sunday, May 5, 2019. (Riccardo Dalla Francesca via AP)

Recent airline crashes run against trend toward safer flying

In the U.S., no airline passengers were killed in accidents from 2009 until April 2018

With plane crashes making headlines over the weekend, one in Florida with no fatalities and another in Russia that killed dozens, travellers might question whether flying has become less safe.

Aviation experts regard the recent incidents as a statistical blip, however, pointing out that such accidents and fatalities are a fraction of what they were as recently as the 1990s.

Advances in aircraft and airport design, better air traffic control, and improved pilot training are often cited as factors in reducing accidents.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get to zero accidents, but aviation is still the safest it’s ever been,” said Seth Young, director of the aviation program at Ohio State University.

In the U.S., no airline passengers were killed in accidents from 2009 until April 2018, when a woman on a Southwest Airlines jet died after an engine broke apart in flight.

Worldwide, there were more than 50 fatal airline accidents a year through the early and mid-1990s, claiming well over 1,000 lives annually, according to figures compiled by the Flight Safety Foundation. Fatalities dropped from 1,844 in 1996 to just 59 in 2017, then rose to 561 last year and 209 already this year.

READ MORE: Three killed, one survives after plane crash near Smithers

Nearly half of the airline deaths in 2018 and 2019 occurred during the crashes of two Boeing 737 Max jets in Indonesia and Ethiopia. In each case, investigators are examining the role of flight software that pushed the nose of the plane down based on faulty sensor readings.

That raises concern about safety around automated flight controls, said William Waldock, an expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

“Pilots are not being trained as much as pilots as they are system operators and system managers,” he said. “So when something happens and the automation fails, they get flummoxed.”

Beyond the two Max crashes, safety experts see little immediate connection between other incidents such as the deadly weekend crash of a Russian plane that caught fire after an emergency landing in Moscow and the case of the charter airliner that ran off a Florida runway into a river; no one died in that one.

Investigators probe crashes in search of clues to prevent more accidents from the same cause. In the case of the Aeroflot jet that caught fire, killing more than 40 people on board, attention is likely to turn to Russian media reports that lightning disabled the plane’s communications system and whether pilots should have burned off fuel before the emergency landing.

Lightning strikes are not uncommon. In the U.S. alone, there are about 25 million every year, according to the National Weather Service. A Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said airline planes get hit about once a year on average.

Planes are built so that the fuselage acts as an electricity-conducting shield, keeping the voltage away from passengers and critical systems. The jolt is often dissipated off wings or the tail. Critical electronics have surge protection. Nitrogen is used to reduce the risk that electrical arcing could spark a fire in a fuel tank.

VIDEO: At least 40 dead in Russian plane’s fiery emergency landing

Newer planes like the Boeing 787, which uses carbon composite material instead of aluminum, includes fine wiring in the wings to direct current off the plane, said John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at MIT.

“They should be designed to take a lightning strike,” Hansman said, “but if you don’t have a perfectly grounded airplane, if you don’t have the right surge suppressors, it’s possible you can take out some of the avionics or electronics.”

Sunday’s fiery crash in Moscow raised questions about making an emergency landing shortly after takeoff, while the plane is still fully loaded with fuel and likely over the maximum landing weight.

Only very large airliners have the ability to dump fuel. Most jetliners including the popular Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 do not. That leaves only one option for lightening the fuel load on a plane like the Russian-made Sukhoi SSJ100 — circling long enough to burn fuel.

John Cox, a former airline pilot and now a safety consultant, said he would only circle if he were concerned that something was wrong with the plane’s landing gear, or the runway was too short.

Video of the landing showed the Aeroflot plane seem to touch down on its main landing gear, then bounce up before coming down hard a second time. At that point, flames can be seen coming from the jet.

Video also captured passengers toting their carry-on luggage as they fled the burning jet. Passengers on U.S. airlines are told to leave personal belongs in an emergency because it can slow the evacuation when seconds are precious.

“We will never know if more lives could have been saved if the bags were left behind,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants.

David Koenig And Tom Krisher, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Homes evacuated in Fairmont due to localized flooding from heavy rainfall

RDEK has issued a state of local emergency, RCMP going door to door in affected areas

Southeast Kootenay school district set to reopen next week

Individual schools have creative timetables and schedules in order to adhere to public health orders

George Morris turns 99

Friends, family and neighbours gathered outside at Terra Lee Terraces in Cranbrook… Continue reading

Rotarians at work at Fred Scott Villas

Members of the Cranbrook Rotary Club, along with some key community volunteers,… Continue reading

The Weed Warrior: an invasive weed, new to the East Kootenay

Wild Parsnip is a plant that most of us don’t want to have a Close Encounter of any Kind with

WATCH: Cranbrook Farmer’s Market kicks off 2020 season

The first market of the year took place on Saturday, May 30.

Toronto Raptors’ Ujiri says conversations about racism can no longer be avoided

Thousands have protested Floyd’s death and repeated police killings of black men across the United States

B.C.’s Central Kootenay region declares state of emergency, issues evacuation orders

The evacuation alert covers all areas except the Cities of Castelgar and Nelson

‘I’m afraid’: Witnesses of wolf attack on senior near Prince Rupert worried about safety

Frank Russ shows where the unprovoked wolf attacked his father

Protesters prepare to rally against racism in front of Vancouver Art Gallery

Rally is in response to the deaths of black Americans and a Toronto woman

Introducing the West Coast Traveller: A voyage of the mind

Top armchair travel content for Alaska, Yukon, BC, Alberta, Washington, Oregon and California!

Protesters rally against anti-black, Indigenous racism in Toronto

Police estimated the crowd to be between 3,500 and 4,000 and said there was no violence

Feds earmark $1.5M to support recovery of B.C., Indigenous tourism

B.C. money will be split between Vancouver Island and Indigenous tourism

‘We’re sick of it’: Anger over police killings shatters U.S.

Tens of thousands marched to protest the death of George Floyd

Most Read