Already in 2009, 11 major accidents involving commercial jets. We're in trouble, right?

Published July 24, 2009 10:23AM (EDT)

An Airbus 320 US Airways aircraft that went down in the Hudson River is seen in New York, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009.
An Airbus 320 US Airways aircraft that went down in the Hudson River is seen in New York, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009.

First it was the Hudson River crash. Then Colgan, Air France, Yemenia and Caspian. Airplanes are dropping like flies, are they not? A radio station called me the other day wanting to discuss this sudden flurry of accidents: signs, in the host's opinion, that air safety is beginning to unravel worldwide. He made reference to a recent USA Today story that seemed to back up his assertion.

According to the Flight Safety Foundation, the story said, there have been 11 major accidents involving commercial jets so far in 2009. That's the third increase in as many years, sparking concern among safety experts.

Yes, any sustained rise in the raw number of crashes is worrisome, but the data can be parsed different ways. A "major" accident includes so-called hull-loss incidents in which a plane was destroyed but no passengers were necessarily injured or killed. It also takes in freighter mishaps and incidents involving second- or third-tier operators in remote parts of the world.

Perhaps you'd prefer the tally of, which reports only six "official" accidents so far in 2009, killing 628 people (or seven accidents and 630 dead if you count the FedEx crash at Narita this past March).

Even using the more conservative metric, we're hardly at a crisis point. Over the past decade, the number of people flying has increased by approximately 20 percent, to just over 2 billion. In that span, the number of annual major accidents has averaged around 15, with year-to-year fluctuations that reveal little or no pattern. The best-performing years were 2001 (12) and 2006 (11), bookended by the worst, 1999 (24) and 2009 (19 so far).

When you expand the time frame over a 25- or 30-year span, it's even more impressive. In the early 1990s, as air travel was beginning to grow exponentially in places like China, India and Brazil, experts warned of a coming crash plague. Deadly accidents could soon be occurring at a rate of one per week, they told us, if preemptive steps were not taken.

Well, those steps were taken. Government regulators, airlines and various safety organizations targeted each of the industry's most vulnerable fronts, from crew training and cockpit technology to maintenance to infrastructure, and the results have been better than anybody could have predicted. Over the past 30 years, global air traffic has more than doubled, with more than twice the number of aircraft carrying twice the number of passengers. Yet flying has become, on average, between five and six times as safe as it was in 1980. We have effectively engineered out some of the most common causes of air crashes, including midair collisions and so-called controlled flight into terrain.

Domestically, the fatal accident rate has been reduced an astonishing 83 percent in the past 10 years. Earlier this spring, the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST), created in 1997 as a joint government-industry partnership, was awarded the prestigious Robert J. Collier Trophy for this accomplishment. CAST members include the FAA, NASA, Boeing and the Air Line Pilots Association.

This coming November, assuming our luck holds out (and yes, to some extent, luck plays a role), will mark the eighth anniversary of the last large-scale crash involving a major U.S. airline. There have been a handful of tragedies involving regional carriers, but since November 2001, there has been exactly one fatality at the hands of a U.S. major. In 2005 a Southwest Airlines 737 ran off a snowy runway in Chicago and killed a young boy in a car. Otherwise, and smack in the middle of the industry's worst-ever stretch of fiscal devastation, we've been perfect.

Speaking in that USA Today piece, Michael Barr, an instructor of aviation safety and security at the University of Southern California, said he feels concerned that the decrease in accidents in recent decades has bred a false sense of security. "The longer you go without accidents," he said, "the more complacent you get."

How much improvement, over how much time, is Barr holding out for, exactly?

On the other hand, he may have a point. "But it also is clear that the job is not done, and that the industry may be nearing another tipping point," writes Perry Flint, the editor of Air Transport World magazine, in a June editorial. "By some safety metrics, the pace of improvement is slackening or stalled." Flint cites bird strikes, runway incursions and flight crew competency (see Colgan) as areas requiring scrutiny.

I would concur on all three counts, and would add another: the potential hazard posed by the carriage of lithium-ion batteries. High-energy lithium-ion power packs, found in many laptop computers and other electronic devices, are susceptible to a phenomenon called "thermal runaway" -- a chemical chain reaction causing them to rapidly and uncontrollably overheat. In 2004, a pallet of improperly packaged batteries caught fire aboard a Federal Express jet as it readied for takeoff in Memphis. In another incident, six batteries caught fire in the overhead bin of a Lufthansa flight on the ground in Chicago. And in 2006, a UPS freighter made an emergency landing in Philadelphia before being ravaged by an inferno that burned for more than four hours. A shipment of lithium-ion batteries is believed to have touched off the blaze. Frighteningly, such fires are impervious to the suppression systems in commercial aircraft cargo compartments.

As for 2009 and those 11 (or six) crashes, consider for a moment 1985. What may have been a fantastic year for music -- Hüsker Dü's "New Day Rising," one of the greatest indie albums of all time, hit the stores in January* -- was arguably the darkest ever for commercial air travel. By the end of the year, 27 crashes had resulted in the deaths of just under 2,400 people.

These included the Air India bombing over the North Atlantic, which killed 329, and, two months later, the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123 outside Tokyo, with 520 dead. (The second and fifth most deadly accidents in aviation history happened 49 days apart.) Also in 1985 were the Arrow Air disaster in Newfoundland that killed more than 240 U.S. servicemen, the infamous British Airtours 737 fire, and the crash of a Delta Air Lines L-1011 in Dallas that killed 137.

Below are history's 10 worst air disasters. This list was originally presented in a column back in 2002, and (thankfully) remains unchanged:

1. March 27, 1977. Two Boeing 747s, operated by KLM and Pan Am, collide on a foggy runway at Tenerife, in Spain's Canary Islands, killing 583 people. The KLM jet departed without permission and struck the Pan Am jet as it taxied along the same runway. Confusion over instructions and a blockage of radio transmissions contributed to the crash.

In 2006 I met and interviewed Bob Bragg, the surviving first officer of the Pan Am 747. His incredible story is here.

2. Aug. 12, 1985. A Japan Air Lines 747 crashes near Mount Fuji after takeoff from Tokyo on a domestic flight killing 520. The rupture of an aft bulkhead, which had undergone faulty repairs following a mishap seven years earlier, caused destruction of part of the airplane's tail and rendered the jet uncontrollable. (A JAL maintenance supervisor later committed suicide, while the president of the airline resigned, accepting full, formal responsibility for the crash and visiting victims' families to offer a personal apology.)

3. Nov. 12, 1996. An Ilyushin IL-76 cargo plane from Kazakhstan collides in midair with a Saudia 747 near Delhi; all 349 aboard both planes are killed. The Kazakh crew had disobeyed instructions, and neither airplane was equipped with collision-avoidance technology.

4. March 3, 1974. A THY (Turkish Airlines) DC-10 crashes near Orly airport, killing all 346 passengers and crew. A poorly designed cargo door had burst from its latches, and the subsequent depressurization caused a failure of the cabin floor and impairment of cables to the rudders and elevators. Out of control, the plane slammed into the woods northeast of Paris. McDonnell Douglas, maker of the DC-10, which would see even more controversy later, was forced to redesign its cargo door system.

5. June 23, 1985. A bomb planted by a Sikh extremist blows up an Air India 747 en route from Toronto to Bombay (with stops in Montreal and London). The airplane fell into the sea east of Ireland, killing 329. Investigators in Canada cited shortcomings in baggage screening procedures, the screening equipment and employee training. A second bomb, intended to blow up another Air India 747 on the same day, detonated prematurely in a luggage facility in Tokyo before being loaded aboard.

6. Aug. 19, 1980. A Saudia L-1011 bound for Karachi returns to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, following an in-flight fire that broke out just after departure. For reasons never understood, the crew takes its time after a safe touchdown and rolls to the far end of the runway before finally stopping. No evacuation is commenced, and the airplane then sits with its engines running for more than three minutes. Before any doors can be opened by the inadequately equipped rescue workers at Riyadh, all 301 people on the widebody die as the passenger cabin is consumed by a flash fire.

7. July 3, 1988. An Airbus A300 operated by Iran Air is shot down over the Strait of Hormuz by the U.S. Navy cruiser Vincennes. The crew of the Vincennes, distracted by an ongoing gun battle, mistakes the A300 for a hostile military aircraft and destroys it with two surface-to-air missiles. None of the 290 occupants survive.

8. May 25, 1979. As an American Airlines DC-10 lifts from the runway at Chicago's O'Hare airport, an engine detaches and seriously damages a wing. Before its crew can make sense of the situation, the airplane rolls 90 degrees and disintegrates in a huge fireball about a mile beyond the runway. With 273 fatalities, this remains the worst-ever crash on U.S. soil. Both the engine pylon design and airline maintenance procedures were faulted by NTSB investigators, and all DC-10s were temporarily grounded.

9. Dec. 21, 1988. Two Libyan agents are later held responsible for planting a bomb aboard Pan American Flight 103, which blows up in the night sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people, including 11 on the ground.

10. Sept. 1, 1983. Korean Air Lines Flight KL007, a 747 carrying 269 passengers and crew from New York to Seoul (with a technical stop in Anchorage, Alaska) is shot down by a Soviet fighter after drifting off course -- and into Soviet airspace -- near Sakhalin Island in the North Pacific. The International Civil Aviation Organization later attributes the mysterious deviation to "a considerable degree of lack of alertness and attentiveness on the part of the flight crew."

Notice how seven of the 10 accidents occurred between 1979 and 1988. Also, I have omitted the Sept. 11 terror attacks (the whole planes-as-weapons stretches the definition of plane crash) as well as the bizarre 1996 incident at Kinshasa, Congo, in which an Antonov cargo plane careened off a runway and slammed into a marketplace. In the latter, a precise death toll was never determined, but estimates put the death toll at 300 or more. Everybody on the airplane survived. The catastrophe is also one of the few air disasters to be commemorated in a work of art. "Catastrophe de Ndolo" is the oil-on-canvas rendition by Congolese painter Cheri Cherin.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

* That's not to give short shrift to Hüsker Dü's "Flip Your Wig" LP, released in the fall of '85. This record suffered from muddled production but has some memorable songs, including one of Grant Hart's many little masterpieces, "Keep Hanging On."

The year's other highlights were the Reivers' "Translate Slowly" LP, the Jazz Butcher's "Gift of Music" compilation, and the Jesus and Mary Chain's remarkable "Psychocandy." The latter was one of the most innovative albums of the decade: kindergarten melodies cloaked in waves of feedback and distortion. Sure, the Velvet Underground did it first, but the JMC did it louder and scarier. (Alas, the group's subsequent efforts were trash.)

Here is what Hüsker Dü looked like in the mid-1980s. Note the beefier and boozier Bob Mould.

Here is what I looked like.

- - - - - - - - - - - -


Re: Piloting blues

My husband is a first officer for Continental Airlines. I feel like our family subsidizes the general public to fly. We're in debt to credit cards to the tune of $1,500 a month -- attributed in part to the $27,000 first-year salary at Continental -- plus our student loans and 11-year-old vehicle we're still paying off. My husband now earns $62,000 per year. This may be plenty of money for most people, but most people don't devote decades of their life, years of education, and well over $100,000 to arrive at this point -- a journey that, for my husband, included working two and three jobs simultaneously, and at one point living in his car.

-- Name withheld

I flew briefly for a regional carrier, but left in 2005 to begin law school. My neighbor made more money driving a city bus than I did as a regional captain. (But then, he did not have the "prestige" of telling people at a party that he was an airline pilot.) As long as there are young pilots willing to work for peanuts in order to build the time they need for their elusive "dream job," there will be this exploitation.

-- Name withheld

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

MORE FROM Patrick Smith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Air Travel Ask The Pilot Business