Air Disasters Raise Concerns on Safety

11:16 PM, Jul 16, 2009   |    comments
crash west of Tehran on July 15.
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Commercial jet crashes around the world are climbing and a spate of recent air disasters threatens to push accident totals to levels not seen since the 1990s.

The number of major crashes during the past five years is higher than recent five-year periods, a disturbing trend to aviation safety advocates who have seen steady and dramatic improvements in recent decades.

"If we continue at this pace, we'll be turning the clock back 10 years on safety," said Bill Voss, president of the non-profit Flight Safety Foundation, which advocates around the world. "This ain't looking so good."

This year, the foundation reports, there have been 11 major crashes worldwide, including Wednesday's crash in Iran that killed 168 people. In June alone, an Air France jet carrying 228 people disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean and a Yemenia Airways plane crashed while attempting to land in the Comoros Islands, killing all but one of the 153 people on board.

If that rate continues, there could be 20 or more crashes this year, the most since 24 jets crashed in 1999. The foundation defines a major crash as one in which the plane was destroyed, multiple fatalities occurred or one person died and the jet suffered significant damage.

Both 2007 and 2008, with 17 and 19 major crashes respectively, had totals higher than their preceding years.

Voss said the trend toward fewer accidents had been going on for so long he could not find a five-year span in which total crashes increased. The trend holds true even when gradual increases in jet traffic is considered.

Even with the recent uptick, flying on a commercial jet remains one of the safest forms of transportation:Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Arnold Barnett calculates that the odds of a passenger dying on a large jet in the U.S. are about one in 20 million.

With plane crashes so rare, experts caution not to jump to conclusions when a handful occur within a month or two. Voss and others agree, however, that the upward trend has been going on long enough to raise concerns.

There is no obvious connection between the recent crashes or a common cause, Voss said. Still, the increase is discouraging because new technology has succeeded in dramatically reducing certain types of crashes, such as midair collisions.

Michael Barr, an instructor at the University of Southern California's  Safety & Security Program, said he is concerned that the steadily decreasing accident rates of recent decades had bred a false sense of security.

"The longer you go without accidents, the more complacent you get," Barr said.


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