Flying is often said to be the safest form of transport, and this is at least true in terms of fatalities per distance travelled. According to the Civil Aviation Authority, the fatality rate per billion kilometres travelled by plane is 0.003 compared to 0.27 by rail and 2.57 by car.
Statistically, you have more chance of being killed riding a bicycle or even by lightning. The chances of dying in an air crash are estimated to be 29 million to one.
“When I started in the business almost 30 years ago, my boss had one basic message: You have to expect an average of 20 jetliner losses around the world every year,” recalls Josef Schweighart, Head of Aviation Germany, AGCS. “Thankfully, such statistics are now history,” he says.
“There has been a staggering reduction in the numbers of both fatal accidents and fatalities in the intervening decades, the result of technology, improvements in air traffic control and pilot training,” he adds.
Since the Wright brothers launched the era of powered flight in 1903 the industry has continued to improve its safety record.
Fatal accidents have fallen every decade since the 1950's, a significant achievement given the massive growth in air travel since then. In 1959, there were 40 fatal accidents per one million aircraft departures in the US. Within 10 years this had improved to less than two in every million departures, falling to around 0.1 per million today.
While the fatality rate significantly increased year-on-year (there were 210 fatalities in 2013), IATA says commercial aviation safety is still at “the lowest rate in history” based on hull losses per one million flights.
By these figures, the 2014 global jet accident rate was 0.23, the equivalent of one accident for every 4.4 million flights. This was actually an improvement over 2013 when the global hull loss rate stood at 0.41 (an average of one accident every 2.4m flights). Both beat the five-year rate (2009-2013) of 0.58 hull loss accidents per million flights. Go back 50 years – when airlines carried only 141 million passengers – there were 87 crashes killing 1,597 people.
The improvement in airline safety is down to a combination of several factors, although the introduction of the jet engine in the 1950's stands out as a major development. Jet engines provide a level of safety and reliability unmatched by the earlier piston engines. Today, it is said that engine manufacturers have almost eliminated the chance of engine failure.
The introduction of electronics, most notable the introduction of digital instruments – known as the ‘glass cockpit’ in the 1970's – and the advent of fly-by-wire technology in the 1980's are also notable achievements, driving safety improvements. Improvements in sensors, navigation equipment and air traffic control technology, such as anti-collision control systems, have also played a role.
While technology has helped drive improvements in the aviation industry’s safety record, great strides in safety management systems and insights into human factors have also contributed significantly.
“Aviation accidents are a chain of events that almost always involve an element of human error,” Downey says.
“However, the safety culture in the aviation industry has changed significantly during my career. Flight training has become a more controlled and professional environment with the development of recurrent training. The utilization and technological enhancement of flight simulators has been one of the biggest changes I have witnessed.”
Recurrent training, in which pilots and crews refresh their skills and prepare for emergency situations, was initially introduced in the airline sector and is now making a positive impact in all sectors of aviation, explains Downey.
In a year when more people flew to more places than ever, 2017 was the safest on record for airline passengers.
The Dutch-based aviation consultancy, To70, has released its Civil Aviation Safety Review for 2017. It reports only two fatal accidents, both involving small turbo-prop aircraft, with a total of 13 lives lost.
No jets crashed in passenger service anywhere in the world.
Everything that didn’t happen in travel in 2017
The two crashes which occurred on New Year’s Eve – a seaplane in Sydney which killed six, and a Cessna Caravan which crashed in Costa Rica, killing all 12 on board – are not included in the tally, since both aircraft weighed under 5,700kg - the threshold for the report.
The first fatal accident included in the report was in October: an Embraer Brasilia operating as an air ambulance in Angola.
The pilots lost control after reportedly suffering an engine failure, Seven people died, including the patient.
In November, a Czech-built Let 410 belonging to Khabarovsk Avia crashed on landing at Nelkan in the Russian Far East with the loss of six lives. A four-year-old girl was the only survivor.
A much higher death toll occurred in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, when a Turkish Boeing 747 freighter belonging to ACT AIrlines overshot the runway and ended up in a village close to the airport, killing 35 on the ground as well as four crew.
In addition, jet blast killed a tourist standing close to the runway on the Caribbean island of St Maarten.
But Mr Young, senior aviation consultant for To70, told The Independent: “It is unlikely that this historic low will be maintained; in part, these very positive figures rest on good fortune. Nevertheless, the safety level that civil aviation has achieved is remarkable”.
He cautioned: “The risks to civil aviation remain high as shown by the seriousness of some of the non-fatal accidents.” They included, he said, “the spectacular loss of the inlet fan and cowling of an engine on an Air France A380” over Greenland in September.
“That the aeroplane continued to operate safely to a diversion airport and was then flown home for repair on three engines says a lot about the robustness of the aeroplane.”
The report warns that electronic devices in checked-in bags pose a growing potential danger: “The increasing use of lithium-ion batteries in electronics creates a fire risk on board aeroplanes as such batteries are difficult to extinguish if they catch fire
“Airlines worldwide are training their crews to fight any fires in the cabin; the challenge is keeping such batteries out of passenger luggage.”
In 2016, 271 people lost their lives in seven fatal events. They included the crash of an Egyptair flight from Paris to Cairo which killed 66, and a LaMia jet carrying the Brazilian football team Chapecoense which ran out of fuel in Colombia and crashed with the loss of 71 lives.
The death toll in the two previous years was significantly higher. In 2015, 471 people died in four crashes; they included a Metrojet flight from Sharm el Sheikh to St Petersburg, Russia, which killed 224, and a Germanwings Airbus A320 from Barcelona to Dusseldorf whose first officer, Andreas Lubitz, killed 150 on board by deliberately crashing into the French Alps.
In 2014, 864 people died in five crashes, including the losses of two Malaysia Airlines 777s: MH370, whose fate is still unknown, and MH17, downed by a missile over eastern Ukraine.
The UK has the best air-safety record of any major country. No fatal accidents involving a British airline have happened since the 1980s. The last was on 10 January 1989; 47 people died when a British Midland Boeing 737 crashed at Kegworth in Leicestershire.
In contrast, sub-Saharan Africa has an accident rate 44 % worse than the global average, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). In November, Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general, said: “African safety has improved, but there is a gap to close.”
“Safety management systems have radically changed the view of the human factor in the airline sector and are now making an impact in the general aviation world,” he says.
Another important safety development in recent decades has been in the area of crew or cockpit resource management and the monitoring of data, which are aimed at reducing the risk of human error. For example, cockpit data monitoring systems – including digital audio and visual recording equipment – are now widely used to identify safety trends that can be addressed by training, as well as to investigate causes of accidents.