IATA safety claims offer cold comfort

Guest Writer

Last week the International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced its aviation safety performance for 2009, with the figures apparently showing that the year’s accident rate for was the second lowest in aviation history. I imagine many people’s reaction to this would have been; “Really??” Because from where I was sitting, it didn’t feel especially safe - in fact it felt like a bloody awful year for aviation safety. The year started well, when the now famous Captain Chesley B. Sullengberger saved all 155 of his US Airways passengers by ditching his stricken Airbus A320 in the Hudson River. After this act of heroism however, things started to go downhill. In February a Colgan Air commuter plane crashed in Buffalo for the loss of all 49 souls, while in March we had the twin incidents of a FedEx cargo plane crashing at Tokyo, and a small aircraft perishing in Montana, for the loss of a combined 16 lives. Both crashes hit the headlines, by the facts that they occurred within 24 hours of each other, and that each saw no survivors.

But the greatest tragedies were still to come; the Air France A330 crashing in the Atlantic Ocean for the loss of all 228 people on board, and the Yemenia Airways A310 plunging into the Indian Ocean, killing all but one of the 153 passengers and crew.

One thing that all these incidents had in common was that they garnered a great deal of media coverage. There were various reasons for this; the fact that they occurred in spates, often in ‘high-profile’ locations (such as Koh Samui and New York City), and included several ‘total’ fatalities, attracted greater attention. Plus, I hate to say it, but the fact that in 2009 so many of the fatalities were Westerners certainly added to the media coverage. In 2008 the two worst crashes in terms of fatalities were the Spanair plane in Madrid, and an Aeroflot jet in Perm, Russia. I think most of us would remember the Madrid incident, but Perm? Also last year, an incident in Iran killed more than three times the number involved in the Buffalo disaster, but I doubt many would remember it.

I am not disputing IATA’s figures; only that it felt different. The human reality about last year was that there were 685 air crash fatalities, compared to 502 in 2008. This is crucial. While IATA may claim that flying last year was safer than the previous year, more people perished; this is hardly an improvement. IATA’s Director-General & CEO, Giovanni Bisignani - never a man to hide the facts behind figures - said that “every fatality reminds us of the ultimate goal of zero accidents and zero fatalities”. Quite right. Sadly whatever the figures show, we still seem as far away from that scenario as ever.

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