With a pair of crashes over the weekend — one a fiery commercial crash in Moscow that cost the lives of more than 40 passengers and that of a charter airliner that ran off a Florida runway into a river with no deaths involved — travelers might be wondering if flying has become more dangerous.
A new report from The Associated Press says aviation experts regard the recent incidents as a “statistical blip,” pointing to figures that show 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 by experts as factors in reducing accidents.
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 during a flight.
Worldwide, there were more than 50 fatal airline accidents a year through the early and mid-1990s, claiming in excess of 1,000 lives annually, according to figures compiled by the Flight Safety Foundation. Since then, fatalities have dropped worldwide from 1,844 in 1996 to just 59 in 2017.
But fatalities rose to 561 last year and, this year, have already reached 209. 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 of the cases involving the Boeing aircraft, investigators are examining the role of flight software that pushed the nose of the plane down based on faulty sensor readings.
William Waldock, an expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, told The AP that raises concerns about safety around automated flight controls.
“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.”
Waldock’s point is one that will be considered and studied. Technology is rarely, if ever, perfect. Investigators probe crashes in search of clues to prevent more accidents from the same cause, and that’s precisely what’s happened following the crash of the two Boeing 737 Max jets.
“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.