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Analysis: Fear of flying?

20 Feb 2016 by BusinessTraveller
Silhouette of weather vane.
Good news, it seems, for those global airline passengers who flew in jet-powered commercial airliners last year: of the four fatal airline crashes in 2015, none involved a modern jet hull aircraft. All the fatal accidents which saw 136 people lose their lives last year involved propeller-driven turboprop aircraft, according to new data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA). “In terms of fatal accidents, it was an extraordinarily safe year,” says Tony Tyler, IATA’s director general and CEO. This is backed up by the Aviation Safety Network (ASN), an independent organisation set up in 1996 to monitor airline safety issues. It reports that 2015 saw the lowest number of fatal airline accidents in a database that stretches back to 1946. Yet ASN’s figures rather differ from IATA’s data, which covers some 260 member airlines accounting for 83 per cent of total global commercial air traffic. ASN instead collates details of all aircraft accidents it discovers, including smaller planes such as corporate jets. ASN, therefore, reported 16 fatal air accidents last year – compared with IATA’s four - with 560 people losing their lives (136 in IATA’s database). Why such a difference in fatality numbers between the two? Mainly because ASN’s figure includes the two most prominent airline disasters last year, both involving jets rather than prop aircraft: the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 over the French Alps with the loss of 150 passengers and crew, believed caused by pilot suicide; and the downing of Metrojet 9268 with 224 fatalities over northern Sinai, thought to be due to terrorism. IATA, however, did not include them in its 2015 accident statistics on the grounds that “they are classified as deliberate acts of unlawful interference”, although this remains unproven with Metrojet. Yet there also is confusion over what constitutes an aviation accident. The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17 over the Ukraine in 2014, with the loss of 298 people was clearly not regarded as accidental by IATA – after all it did reportedly include an surface-to-air missile being launched - and therefore it was excluded from its fatality figures that year. But the disappearance of another Malaysia Airlines flight that year – MH-370 over the Indian Ocean carrying 239 passengers and crew – was classified by IATA as an accident as the cause of its disappearance was (and still is) unknown. ASN, however, cites the reasons for deliberate rather than accidental causes for fatal crashes as including “sabotage, shoot downs and suicides”. While all air crashes are tragedies, there are some grounds from a longer-term perspective for optimism that deliberate disasters may now be the exception rather than the rule. Prior to the double Malaysia Airlines incidents in 2014, the previous five years had been free of any deliberate bringing down of an airliner, according to the ASN database. In contrast, in the last 30 years of the 20th century – from 1970 to 2000 - there were only six years in which no fatal airline crash was deliberately caused. In the first decade of this century, moreover, there were only three years in which aircraft were brought down by non-accidental means – including  those downed on 9/11. So there is some justification to agree with IATA’s Tyler that “the long-term trend data show us that flying is getting even safer”. But that poses the question: which airline is the safest to fly? In popular culture the answer, of course, is Qantas – a result of Dustin’s Hoffman character in the 1988 film ‘Rain Man’ claiming that the airline had never had a crash. In truth, it has never had a crash since 1951, before the jet age for commercial carriers. Yet Qantas is still winning accolades: last month it was named (for the third year running) at the head of a top 20 list of the world’s safest airlines complied by AirlineRatings.com, a website established in 2013 by experienced aviation journalists. It uses a seven-star screening programme of some 407 airlines worldwide to determine its safety list, with 148 getting the full seven stars. The top 20 is decided by the editorial team based on a range of factors, including ‘operational excellence’. While British Airways and Virgin Atlantic both have seven stars, only Virgin makes the cut into the top 20. There are other airline safety rating sites, including Jacdec (Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre) established in 1989: top of its just-published 2016 rankings is Cathay Pacific, with Virgin 14th and BA 18th. But such statistics-based safety lists may not tell the whole story. Lufthansa-owned Germanwings, for example, also gets seven stars by AirlineRatings.com in spite of last year’s crash, as fatalities caused by terrorism or pilot suicide are not included in the rankings. Perhaps a better solution for nervous flyers is to invest £2.29 on an iPhone app launched last year called  ‘Am I going down?’ which calculates the odds, based on available data, of a particular flight crashing. Or maybe just have a stiff drink on takeoff? David Churchill
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