WASHINGTON - Only 34 people have died in U.S. commercial airline
crashes in the past three years, making it one of the safest periods
in aviation history even as more Americans than ever travel by air.
|An America West Airlines
Boeing 757 jetliner departs Las Vegas in this file photo. (Chris
On Oct. 20, a Corporate Airlines twin-engine turboprop crashed
into the woods on approach to the Kirksville Regional Airport in
Missouri, killing 13 people. Those were the only fatalities aboard
U.S. scheduled airlines for the year.
National Transportation Safety Board chairman Ellen Engleman
Conners, noting that some 42,000 people die every year on the roads,
said, "I hope all modes of transportation could replicate aviation's
The last U.S. crash of a jumbo jet was Nov. 12, 2001, when
American Airlines Flight 587 lost part of its tail and plummeted
into a New York City neighborhood, killing 265 people. Safety
investigators concluded that the crash was caused by the pilot
moving the rudder back and forth too aggressively, which put more
pressure on the tail than it could bear.
Last year, the number of fatal accidents per 100,000 departures
was .015. Air travelers are estimated to have boarded planes 685
million times in 2004, a 3 percent increase over 2000, the previous
busiest year, according to the Air Transport Association.
Marion Blakey, who heads the Federal Aviation Administration,
said new technology has improved safety. For example, many planes
now have systems that warn pilots if they're about to fly too close
to the ground.
Jets and turboprops manufactured after March 29, 2003, are
required by federal regulations to have a so-called Terrain
Awareness and Warning System. All other planes with more than six
seats must be retrofitted with the devices by March 29, 2005.
The plane that crashed in Missouri in
October was months away from being outfitted with a terrain-warning
system that might have prevented the accident.
On the ground, 34 major airports have been equipped with systems
that warn air traffic controllers of a potential collision on
runways. One of the worst aviation disasters in history involved two
jumbo jets that ran into each other on a runway in Tenerife in the
Canary Islands in 1977, killing 582 people.
Weather radar and wind shear alert systems also have helped
eliminate accidents caused when planes encounter concentrated
downward bursts of wind on approach to the airport.
Safety experts agree that better training and awareness of safety
issues have played a big part in making U.S. skies safer.
A key effort has been the FAA's formation in 1997 of the
Commercial Aviation Safety Team, which set the goal of reducing
fatal aviation accident rates by 80 percent by 2007. The accident
rate has fallen 50 percent since then, and is on track to meet the
goal, said FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette.
As part of the CAST project, airline unions and management, along
with federal agencies and manufacturers, are collaborating on
identifying safety problems and solving them. Among the 85 safety
improvements CAST is working on include:
- Teaching pilots how to recover from unusual flight conditions
that could be dangerous.
- Developing tougher standards for icing-prevention technology on
- Establishing new procedures for air traffic controllers to
prevent collisions on runways.
Blakey said such cooperation hasn't always been the norm.
"At an earlier point in aviation's development, there was less
incentive, less willingness to be candid about problems," Blakey
Though pilots often are at odds with their employers, they do
agree that airline management shares their commitment to safety.
Paul Rice, vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association,
said airline executives realize that safety enhances the bottom
"If there's a big plane crash, people stop flying," Rice said.
Rice points to a change in federal regulations, which took effect
Dec. 14, 1995, as a key development for aviation safety.
On that day, all commercial air carriers — from commuter planes
with 10 or more passenger seats to jumbo jets — were required to
follow the same safety rules for operating. Before then planes with
30 or fewer seats fell under less stringent regulations than bigger
Echoing the caution of many safety experts, Bill Waldock,
aviation safety professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in
Arizona, characterized the past few years as "safer, not safe."
Waldock noted much was made of the fact 2002 ended without a
single person dying in a commercial airline accident. Eight days
into 2003, 21 people were killed in a plane crash in Charlotte, N.C.
"When we have a real safe period, people get complacent," Waldock