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Is air travel becoming less safe?

We have witnessed three fairly big plane crashes in the last two weeks, and already nervous flyers are even more on edge. But is this an anomaly, or is air travel less safe than we think? Crikey’s aviation reporter explains.

Although 465 people have died in three unrelated plane crashes in quick succession this month, there is no reason to think air travel is less safe than it used to be.

In the past two weeks, the Malaysia Airlines MH17 atrocity killed 298 people in eastern Ukraine, a TransAsia Airways crash in Taiwan killed 48 — not including reports of a small number of deaths in houses struck by the turbo-prop involved — and a SwiftAir charter for Air Algerie killed 119 people in Mali.

But there is no reason to think 2014 will be a “horror year” for air disasters, despite sensationalist headlines.

These three graphics sourced from the Aviation Safety Network and crosschecked with some other sources show the decline of the death rate per passenger.

The first graph, below, shows the body count each year from 1946 to 2014.

Note that the above graph showing 716 deaths for 2014 is in small disagreement with the figures from other years.

The second graph below shows the count for all crashes in scheduled services since the end of 1945 in which one or more people, including flight crew, died.

Taken together, these graphs show the crash rate has dramatically declined — at a time when the number of passengers exposed to the risk of dying in a crash per aircraft has risen, as has the number of passengers flying. This translates to fewer crashes, but more dead per crash.

The third graph below, based on ICAO figures, shows total departures since 2005 — departures are predicted to rise to 59 million by 2030.

That last graph makes an interesting comparison with the downward trend in air crash fatalities by scheduled carriers in the past six years. But note the trap. The volume of departures seems fairly flat, versus falling deaths, but it smooths out the abrupt impact of the GFC and subsequent currency crisis on activity in the more mature Western states (i.e. fewer Westerners flying) while disguising the extraordinary growth in Asia in air travel in the same period.

This comparison tells us that the rise of air travel in south-east Asia as well as in the “mature” markets, which have been boosted by low-cost carrier expansion, has not been accompanied by a commensurate upwards trend in air crashes.

And what does this mean for Australia? Until the MH17 disaster, very few Australian residents or nationals have died in plane crashes — and Australian carriers have very good safety records.

Those aboard MH17 and mysterious MH370 may have died as a result of criminal action, which is not a true reflection on the inherent safety or lack of it for scheduled carriers. The overwhelming cause of air crashes since the end of World War II has been flight standards failures, as in Air France flight AF447, or design faults, as in Boeing’s rudder problems in older model 737s or the original Comet airliners, in which the limiting factors of metal fatigue in pressure cycle-sensitive fuselages were discovered the hard way.

In this month’s other crashes, the TransAsia tragedy in Taiwan occurred in a carrier with a history of adverse incidents in a go-around situation where bad weather prevented a first attempt at landing on a small island runway.

The SwiftAir/Air Algerie accident has been blamed by the contractor and charterer on bad weather. This explanation has not been embraced by air safety analysts, who want to know more about what encountering turbulence might have done to the horizontal stabilizer atop the T-tail of the MD-83.

Storms rarely cause airliners to crash in their own right. But they may make improperly maintained control sensitive parts like rudder components fail, and the dreadful loss of an Alaskan Airlines flight 261, another MD-83, in 2000 in California, as a result of a mishandled part of its tail assembly, figures prominently in technical speculation as to the root cause of this latest loss of this type of airliner.

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