According to the Aviation Safety Network (ASN), 2016 was the second safest year for international aviation after 2013 which is remarkable. There were 356 commercial aviation deaths – fewer than one a day, in spite of the much publicised accidents involving Egypt Air, a chartered Russian Airliner over Egypt, and the horrible Colombian crash which destroyed a nation’s favourite football club, Chapecoense.
But the numbers exclude the latest Tu-154 crash over the Black Sea as the ASN had concluded its 2016 data analysis. The numbers wouldn’t be so rosy, but its other trends that attracted my attention when looking at the crash data. As the ASN reminds us, “the stats are based on all worldwide fatal accidents involving civil aircraft with a minimum capacity of 14 passengers, as published in the ASN Safety Database” and closed its database analysis prior to Christmas. The worst disaster of 2016 happened on Christmas day. But more later.
The second worst accident of the year took place on November 28th a LaMia Bolivia Avro RJ85 crashed near Medellin in Colombia as a result of fuel exhaustion, killing 71. It was an incident that shocked the aviation world (and soccer world), particularly after it transpired that the captain had purposefully flown his aircraft well into what is known as the reserve fuel component and thus doomed himself and the passengers.
The ASN reports worldwide air traffic of about 35,000,000 flights in 2016 which means the accident rate is one fatal passenger flight per 3.2 million flights. To put that into perspective take a look at commercial road transport stats. In the USA for example, the number of deaths per 10 000 vehicles is 1.3 individuals. That’s roughly 12 per 100 000, or 120 per million. Extrapolating further this means there are around 360 deaths per 3 million trips in the USA alone. The WHO reports that in Africa the number of car related deaths tops 26.6 per 10 000 which is a mind-boggling 2660 per 3 million.
Still there were 19 fatal incidents which killed 325 up to mid December, a significant number but still putting 2016 in the list of safest years. We should also understand the trends and the graph shows a rapidly improving scenario. The five-year-average shows a steep decline in accidents occurring during the approach and landing phases of flight or the most dangerous part of the flight. The five year average, according to ASN, is now the lowest point in 45 years. There’s an unfortunate correlation here to the cruise and descent phase which shows an accident rate increasing 50% in the past five years.
Why? What is causing more incidents in the cruise and descent phase in the approach and landing phases? While the ASN has not attempted an analysis, perhaps we should take a look at this trend and discuss. There’s certainly enough data to use if you consider the ASN’s google doc upload here. Let’s consider the more catastrophic.
- Nepal – Viking Air DHC-6 Twin Otter 400 operated by Dana Air crashes into terrain killing all 23 on board on 24th February. Pilot error was cited and what’s known as a CFIT or controlled flight into terrain occurred.
- Russia – Boeing 737-8KN (WL) operated by FlyDubai crashes on its second approach at Rostov-On-Don Airport killing all 62 on board on 16th March. The cause is still being debated but bad weather and poor handling compounded an already difficult situation.
- Egypt – Airbus A320-232 operated by EgyptAir crashes in the Mediterranean 200 km north of the Egyptian coast line on 19th May, killing all 66 on board. Cause under investigation but appears to show a fire or act of terror.
- Russia – Ilyushin 76TD operated by the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations was destroyed when it impacted wooded terrain near the village of of Rybnyi Uyan in the Kachug Region. The accident on July 1st killed all 10 on board and is another example of CFIT.
- Colombia – Avro RJ.85 operated by LaMia Airlines hit a wooded hillside south of Rionegro/Medellín Airport. The aircraft carried the Brazilian Chapecoense football team for a match to Medellin – six of the 77 occupants survived the accident. The November crash was clearly pilot error and has harmed diplomatic relations between Brazil and Bolivia.
- Pakistan – ATR 42-500 operated by Pakistan International Airlines was destroyed after impacting a hillside near Havelian, killing all 47 aboard on December 7th. Engine failure led to the aircraft crashing, with many questions about overloading and other possible causes.
There were 13 other fatal crashes that killed at least one person but fewer than 10 in total, and two of the airlines were on the EU blacklist.
Analysts are pouring over the data to understand why the cruise and descent phase has shown figures that are the worst in 50 years. It’s noticeable that the list of planes involved were varied, so too their ages. It’s simplistic to blame accidents on older aircraft and is just plain wrong in this case, however there is a growing list of pilot shortages in the world and most are now complaining about overwork. Tiredness played a part in the Rostov-on-Don incident according to initial reports, and one of the airlines named by reports was FlyDubai. I had the distinction of flying aboard a FlyDubai aircraft between Alexandria in Egypt and Dubai and was a little nervous after reading about some of the hiring procedures of said airline. Included was something called the “pay-to-fly” (P2F) syndrome where First Officers actually pay to sit in the second seat in order to build up hours. For an initial list of airlines using this system, head on to the Professional Pilots Rumour Network or pprune.org.
There’s now an outright call to ban this form of abuse of aviators. Ghent University in Belgium found shocking examples of this in its report published in March 2015.
More than 1 pilot out of 6, among the surveyed, is under ‘atypical’ employment conditions; i.e. working through a temporary work agency, as self-employed, or on a zero-hour contract with no minimum pay guaranteed – Ghent University Report
This has led to young and inexperienced pilots paying to be the second pilot in a plane carrying hundreds of passengers in order to build flying hours. Dangerous and as the Ghent Study found, exceedingly short-sighted.
The number of flights being managed by ATC are increasing based on world economic development. If you consider the location of these major accidents, they’re all in the third world or emerging marketplace world. Russia remains one of the biggest offenders but that’s partly due to that countries mixed recent history and pure size. However if we were to analyse Moscow’s recent aviation record dispassionately we’d find an unfortunate number of incidents occurring in their airspace.
If you think that’s a bit harsh, we have not included the last accident on Christmas morning which took place over the Black Sea near Sochi. This one has serious overtones as it was another military-linked aircraft that was involved.
A Tupolev 154B-2 operated by the Russian Air Force crashed shortly after takeoff from Sochi Airport. The aircraft carried reporters and the Alexandrov Ensemble or the official army choir of the Russian armed forces and was refuelling en route to a highly strategic Russian air base in Syria. Ninety-Two people on board all perished in what was 2016’s worst air disaster, eclipsing the Colombian catastrophe. If we added the 92 to the total killed in 2015, 2016 would still register as safer.
Thus ended a 2016 in which aviation recorded many gains but some serious questions remain about what’s leading to an increase in cruise and descent incidents. Recently I spoke to pilot from a major airline in Africa who told me a hair-raising story about climbing from a Southern African country airport to cruise level. On the way a cargo flight operated by a captain who, lets say, was inspired by cowboy antics, decided unilaterally to descend to the same flight level without clearance.
Only the First Officer’s quick thinking and persistence finally led the Captain initiating avoiding action and the 120-odd people on board were saved. But that was in cruise and the situation was caused by pilot error. Or should we say, pilot maleficence.
Safe cruising and descending people! And happy 2017.