Region's air accident rate shoots up

The accident rate for Middle Eastern airlines was four times higher than for the rest of the world last year.

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The accident rate for Middle Eastern airlines was four times higher than for the rest of the world last year because of accidents including the fatal crashes of a cargo flight from Sharjah and a passenger flight off the African coast, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said. A total of four accidents involving regional carriers was recorded last year, amounting to an accident rate of 3.32 per 1 million flights, the second-highest in the world after Africa. The accidents involved Iran Air, Yemenia Airways, Saudi Arabian Airlines and Azza Transport, based in Khartoum. No one was killed in the Iran Air and Saudi Arabian Airlines crashes.

In the UAE, a 42-year-old Boeing 707 air freighter operated by Azza Transport crashed in Sharjah shortly after take-off, killing all six crew members. The flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder yielded no information, preventing a conclusive investigation. The Middle East accident rate compares with a global average of 0.71 hull losses per million flights, which was the second lowest in aviation history. The best performance for global airlines was 2006, with a rate of 0.65 accidents per million flights - a year when Middle East airlines had the safest record in the world, with zero accidents. The region's perfect record ended in 2008 with 1.89 accidents per million flights.

IATA bases the safety report on the performance of western-built aircraft. The accident rates are generally higher for eastern-built aircraft, primarily Russian and Ukrainian. In this area, a safety push was instituted yesterday by the UAE's General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), which said it would ban the Russian-built Antonov An-12 air freighter from operating in UAE airspace beginning on March 1, after a temporary ban last year and a subsequent review period.

The aircraft is a workhorse of the air cargo industry and is commonly seen at the UAE's smaller airports in Sharjah, Fujairah and Ras al Khaimah, but in 2008 and early last year there were several incidents involving the An-12, including runway overruns at Sharjah airport, and one crash in Iraq of a plane originating in the UAE. Despite the improvement in the global average last year, IATA said more work needed to be done to eliminate factors that caused accidents.

Runway incursions accounted for a quarter of all accidents last year, while accidents caused by ground handling companies and pilot error made up a large portion, IATA said. "Last year, 2.3 billion people flew safely. But every fatality is a human tragedy that reminds us of the ultimate goal of zero accidents and zero fatalities," said Giovanni Bisignani, the director general and chief executive of IATA.

In June, all but one of the 153 passengers and crew on Yemenia Flight 626 from Sana'a to the Comoros died when the Airbus A310 crashed in the Indian Ocean. Initial investigations pointed to pilot failure, although this has been challenged by the Comoros and Yemeni authorities. In November, Iran Air was operating Flight IR-220 from Isfahan to Tehran with a Fokker 100 when it reported landing gear problems and returned to Isfahan. Its nose gear collapsed upon landing but no injuries were reported.

In May, Saudi Arabian Airlines MD-90 ran off the runway after a flight from Jeddah to Riyadh. The plane suffered substantial damage but no one aboard was injured.