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The Third Certainty: Safety Improvements of Passenger Aircrafts

Posted on September 1st, 2016 by in New Materials & Applications

Sina plane crash post

(Source: Airbus, www.airbus.com)

Most people travel, occasionally or often, on a plane for business or pleasure. Airline safety continues to improve by leaps and bounds which is a good thing during this season of holiday travel.  Air travel is the safest mode of transportation in spite of the sensationalism by news media when a plane crashes.  In the 21st century no other mode of travel comes close to air travel from a safety standpoint.  An American has a one in eleven million chance of dying in a plane crash and one in seventy seven chance of dying in a car accident in their lifetime.  Next time you see an air crash report on the television remember an average American citizen is 140,000 times more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the supermarket than in an airplane crash.  Figure 1 shows the rate of fatal accidents per one million departures for the last 60 years.  The drop in the rate has been super-exponential.

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Figure 1 Number of Transport Category Aircraft Accidents involving Fatality since 1960
(Ref: Statistical Summary of Commercial Jet Airplane Accidents Worldwide Operations: 1959–2015, Boeing Company, July 2016)

Air Accident Statistics

In July 2016, the Boeing Company published a statistical report of aircraft accidents since 1959.  There has been continuous growth in the numbers of airplanes and flights (Figure 2).  In 2017 there were nearly 27 million departures. Relative scarcity of fatalities in crashes should bring a great deal of relief to those who fear flying. The odds of surviving a crash have continued to increase over the decades because of continuous improvements brought about by the safety, economic, legislative and technology drivers.  Airframe manufacturers, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (and its global sister agencies), airlines and the US National Transportation Safety Board have collaborated to reduce air travel related fatalities. In addition to safety, modern planes are also more comfortable and full of amenities compared to the past equipment.

 

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Figure 2 Number Departures, Flight Hours, and Jet Airplanes in Service
(Ref: Statistical Summary of Commercial Jet Airplane Accidents Worldwide Operations: 1959–2015, Boeing Company, July 2016)

After the dramatic reduction in accident rates in the early 1960’s, the annual rate of fatal accidents has continuously decreased globally. The drop for the US and Canadian airlines has been even more dramatic than for other airlines. The most recent period between 1996 and 2015 (Figure 3) includes years 2002, 2004, 2012, 2014 and 2015 registering zero accidents for the US and Canadian airlines.  Those statistics testify to the high safety standards of the passenger aircraft in the two countries.

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Figure 3 Number of Transport Category (>19 passengers) Aircraft Accidents involving Fatality between 1996-2016 (Ref: Statistical Summary of Commercial Jet Airplane Accidents Worldwide Operations: 1959–2015, Boeing Company, July 2016)

Improvement of Aircraft Safety

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has taken a bilateral approach to enhance passenger aircraft safety including reduction in fatalities due to fire.  The first approach is to prevent new factors from increasing the accident rate through programs such as Aging Aircraft, Structural Airworthiness, Engine Reliability, and Catastrophic Failure Prevention. The second approach is to reduce the number of accidents of the type that have been occurring and to increase the survival rate in such accidents through programs in Airplane Crashworthiness, Cabin Safety, Fire Safety, and Fire Research (Source: www.fire.tc.faa.gov/research/backgrnd.stm).

A major cause of fatality in airplane accidents is fire, almost 20% during 1981-1990.  Most death occurred in post-crash fires.  For example, on August 22, 1983, a British Airtours Boeing 737 caught fire after an aborted takeoff.  Of the 137 passengers and crew members 56 perished.  Most of the deaths were due to smoke inhalation.  On June 2, 1983, an Air Canada DC-9 made an emergency landing in Cincinnati because of smoke in the cabin.  Ninety seconds after the plane landed and the doors were opened the heat of the fire, intensified by the rush of air through open exit doors, created flashover conditions. The plane’s interior immediately became engulfed in flames, killing 23 passengers who had yet to evacuate the aircraft.

Recent accidents tell a different story. One involved crash landing of an Emirates Airlines Boeing 777-300 in Dubai on August 3, 2016.  All 300 passengers and the crew were safely evacuated before the plane went up in flames.  On June 27, 2016, a Singapore Airlines Boeing 777-300 ER suffered an engine fire during taxing.  The firefighters put out the fire and all 241 passengers and crew evacuated unharmed.  A Korean Airlines Boeing 777-300 experienced engine failure and fire while taxiing for take-off on May 27, 2016.  All 319 passengers and crew were evacuated although 12 were injured.

So fasten your seat belt, sit back and enjoy your flight.  It is far safer than your car or even your home. Based on the last sixty years data, improvement in airplane safety is the third certainty after death and taxes


 

All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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