Airline Safety Statistics Suggest Domestic Progress, Global Challenges

While recent years have presented many challenges for Americans, one news item from last year was welcome: no fatal U.S. airline crashes occurred in 2010. Over the past two decades, the National Transportation Safety Board’s statistics for major commercial aircraft accidents involving fatalities show a steady decrease from the early 1990s, despite a 50 percent increase in aircraft hours flown.

Aviation accident fatalities have never been worse than one per 15 million passengers since the devastating year of 2001. U.S. airlines have also recorded zero fatalities in three other years during the last decade.

Global statistics paint a different picture, however. More than 800 passengers and crew lost their lives in 26 fatal aviation accidents worldwide in 2010, very close to the ten-year average figures of 777 fatalities in 30 fatal accidents. But one trend within this data deserves to be singled out: accident rates fell to an all-time low last year for International Air Transport Association (IATA) member airlines.

One conclusion that commentators have derived from recent airline safety trends is that developing economies must employ current safety management methods instead of relying on regulations to enforce standards. A spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association International summed up the situation as follows: “Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to ­complex, intelligent behaviour. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple, stupid behaviour.”

The Incidents Behind High International Airline Accident Rates

A review of some of the worst international airline accidents in 2010 includes the types of incidents that could have been prevented by implementing safety improvements, including enhanced training regimens, terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS), and stabilized approach procedures:

  • An Air India Express Boeing 737-800 overran the runway in Mangalore, India, leading to 158 fatalities.
  • An Airblue Airbus A321 crashed into high ground near Islamabad, Pakistan, after breaking off a circular approach, killing all 152 crew and passengers aboard.
  • An Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A330-200 crashed into the ground at high speed on approach to Tripoli, Libya, killing 92 of 93 people on board.
  • An Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737-800 plummeted into the Mediterranean during a failed climbing turn on departure from Beirut, Lebanon, killing all 90 passengers and crew.

The last fatal crash in the U.S. was the Continental Connection commuter turboprop crash on approach to Buffalo in February of 2009, which killed all 49 people on board and one person on the ground. While we have obviously not witnessed the last air tragedy in the U.S., safety experts credit better training, technology and data collection for the steady reductions in U.S. aircraft accident rates.

Assessing the Complex Factors Behind Airline Crashes

With no fatalities on U.S. airlines through much of 2009 and all of 2010, confidence is justifiably strong that U.S. regulators, traffic controllers, mechanics and airline officials are reaping the benefit of dedicated safety enhancement programs.

But fatal accidents also occur in other areas of U.S aviation, including charter aircraft, air ambulances, sightseeing helicopters, and private small aircraft. The complex factors that lead to these crashes – from maintenance negligence and human factors such as pilot error to design defects and defective manufacturing – mean that any assessment of legal liability must include the results of comprehensive government investigations, close scrutiny of wreckage, and diligent advocacy for injured plaintiffs and family survivors.

While the media tends to emphasize large scale tragedies, enhanced passenger and crew safety is not simply a matter of reviewing the causes of fatal accidents. Air travelers suffer severe injuries every year in incidents involving turbulence, abrupt avoidance maneuvers and other violent forces that never make headlines.

Enlisting Air Crash Litigation Professionals to Protect a Person or Family’s Legal Rights

The rights of plaintiffs can vary considerably depending on the location of an airline tragedy. American passengers must know that they have limited rights after involvement in an international airline crash because of the Montreal Convention, an international treaty adopted to enforce rules relating to the international carriage of passengers, baggage and cargo. This is just one of the many complex factors that potential plaintiffs must consider when assessing their legal options for recovery after an airline injury or fatality.

An airline crash attorney with experience in foreign and domestic aviation accident litigation can help a client anticipate the challenges ahead and provide keen insights about an injured person or surviving family member’s prospects for financial recovery.


Paul J. Hedlund is a senior shareholder and trial lawyer for the national law firm of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman which handles major transportation accidents and pharmaceutical drug product liability cases. Paul focuses his practice on commercial transportation accidents including, aviation, bus, train and truck crashes. He received his degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan and his law degree from UCLA.


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