When new year rolls around, the aviation industry traditionally looks back on what has gone before and asks: was the previous year a good one? And according to statistics just released by Aviation Safety Network, 2018 was much better than most on record - it was the third safest in history in terms of number of fatal accidents, and ninth in terms of lives lost.
Last year, 556 people were killed while travelling on 15 commercial flights, which involved 12 passenger services and three cargo operations. With 38 million airline flights having taken place during the 365 day period, the fatal accident accident rate was approximately one in every 2.5m flights. Almost 4.3bn people took to the air last year, meaning the odds of a passenger losing their life was around 1 : 7.7m. Flying therefore remains an extremely safe form of transport - far safer in fact than most other means of travel.
If the scope of the statistics is extended to include military operations, 917 lives were lost on 25 flights in 2018 - the higher number not helped by the loss of an Algerian Air Force Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane with 257 people on board on April 11.
Fifteen accidents involving commercial flights took 556 lives in 2018
Data: Aviation Safety Network
Actually the figures for 2018 are not as good as the rolling five year average (14 accidents / 480 lives lost per annum), and don't compare favourably to the all-time best in 2017 when there were only 10 accidents and 44 lives lost. Nevertheless, Aviation Safety Network’s CEO Harro Ranter explained that the accident rate for commercial flights has improved significantly since the turn of the millennium: “If the accident rate had remained the same as ten years ago, there would have been 39 fatal accidents last year. At the accident rate of the year 2000, there would have been even 64 fatal accidents.”
The loss of Lion Air flight 610 was the most significant accident of 2018, and the first to involve a Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. (Photo: PK-REN)
The most controversial loss of the year involved Lion Air flight 610 on October 29, the first fatal accident involving the new-generation Boeing 737 MAX. Investigations into the route cause of the tragedy continue with maintenance, software and pilot control all being subject to scrutiny.
Unfortunately some sections of the media have chosen to highlight one figure which points to the rise in fatalities between 2017 and 2018. Doing so misses the point and the underlying trend. Any loss of life is regrettable and must be avoided if at all possible, but last year can still be regarded as a good one for the industry because the trend is still downward. No one wants to go back to the rates of the 20th century - more than 2,000 people lost their lives on commercial flights during three separate years in the '70s and '80s', while there were six more years before 2,000 when the total breached 1,500. There have been year-to-year blips since, but there has also been significant increases in the number of flights and passengers carried each year.
The Aviation Oracle notes that a significant proportion of last year's fatal accidents were either in the en route or climb out (departure) phases of flight, giving lie to the commonly held belief that landings are most dangerous. But ASN notes that loss-of-control is a concern for the industry and has accounted for at least 10 of the worst 25 accidents over the past five years. As most pilots become more used to automation on the flight deck, it might just be that a few of them are losing the tactile skills required for hand flying - or at least are not getting sufficient practice. We are still some way off being able to guarantee no one dies in a passenger aircraft, but the industry continues to strive for improvement and hopefully this year will be better yet.
Text © The Aviation Oracle