Air safety in 2018: should we be concerned about flying?

2017 was a spotless year for commercial travel, so why has 2018 started off so badly?

This photo provided by Mizan News Agency, shows the the wreckage of a Turkish private jet that crashed on Sunday in the Zagros Mountains, outside of the city of Shahr-e Kord, some 230 miles (370 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Monday, March 12, 2018. Investigators on Monday found the "black box" from the jet that crashed on its way from the United Arab Emirates to Istanbul, killing all 11 people on board — likely including a Turkish bride-to-be and her bachelorette party. (Asal Bigdeli/Mizan News Agency via AP)
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Almost 200 people were killed in plane crashes in the first three months of this year, after a fatality-free 2017 for commercial aviation.

Although it's impossible to draw comparisons with any of the recent accidents, questions have naturally resurfaced over air safety and why it has been such a bad start to 2018.

It's not easy coming off the back of what seems like an anomaly for the industry: a year without a single commercial passenger jet fatality, making 2017 the safest on record for commercial air travel.

But does the question need to be posed? Is air safety suddenly regressing?

Luckily, the answer seems to be no. Air travel remains the safest mode of transport in the world, and aviation experts are quick to put paid to any comparisons between separate crashes.

By the numbers

Since January, there have been four major commercial jet crashes, with 196 people killed between them. That number might have doubled had the year's first crash resulted in fatalities.

- January 13: Pegasus Airlines Flight 8622 skidded off the end of the runway at Trabzon Airport, Turkey and came to rest on a cliff. All 168 passengers and crew survived without any injuries, and instead the most notable thing to come out of the potential disaster was a spectacular picture which quickly went viral.

A Pegasus Airlines Boing 737 passenger plane is seen struck in mud on an embankment, a day after skidding off the airstrip, after landing at Trabzon's airport on the Black Sea coast on January 14, 2018. 
A passenger plane late on January skidded off the runway just metres away from the sea as it landed at Trabzon's airport in northern Turkey. The Pegasus Airlines flight, with 168 people on board, had taken off from Ankara on its way to the northern province of Trabzon. No casualties were reported.  / AFP PHOTO / IHLAS NEWS AGENCY / STRINGER / Turkey OUT
A Pegasus Airlines Boing 737 passenger plane is seen struck in mud on an embankment, a day after skidding off the airstrip at Trabzon's airport on the Black Sea coast on January 14, 2018. AFP Photo.

- February 11: Saratov Airlines Flight 703, crashed shortly after take-off from Domodedovo International Airport in Russia. All 71 passengers and crew were killed.

- February 18: Iran Aseman Airlines Flight 3704 crashed into the Zagros Mountains in Iran, killing all 60 passengers, two security guards, two flight attendants and a pilot and co-pilot.

- March 12: US-Bangla Airlines Flight 211, on an international flight from Dhaka to Nepal, crashed at Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, killing at least 49 people of the 71 onboard.

This only refers to aircraft that weigh over 5,700 kilograms, which is an International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) weight-defined limit.

But there have also been a number of crashes involving smaller planes, which resulted in fatalities. Sunday's crash killed wealthy Turkish socialite and business heiress Mina Basaran, 28, seven friends and three crew members when a private plane travelling from Sharjah to Istanbul crashed in Iran.

On March 6, a Russian transport plane crashed in Syria, killing all 32 people on board, and on March 12, a helicopter carrying six people crashed in New York City's East River, killing all passengers, although the pilot survived.

Remains of Bangladesh's US-Bangla Flight BS211 lies on the ground as a plane takes off from Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, Tuesday, March 13, 2018. The plane, which was coming from Bangladesh, was flying low and erratically before striking the ground and erupting in flames on Monday. US-Bangla Airlines Flight BS211 from Dhaka to Kathmandu was carrying 67 passengers and four crew members. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)
Remains of Bangladesh's US-Bangla Flight BS211 lies on the ground as a plane takes off from Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, Tuesday, March 13, 2018. Niranjan Shrestha / AP Photo.

What's behind the accidents?

Capt Darren Straker, former Chief Air Accident Investigator at UAE's General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) and independent investigator at Straker System Safety, claimed there was a common theme in some of the commercial airline crashes: an "attributable cause based on human error".

"A bad start to the year? Yes, but I think last year was the aberration, the system is now back to accidents and operational liabilities," he said.

"Despite the ICAO accident data trend decreasing for several years, the alarming increase in accidents where no technical cause has been prioritised, indicates that that the systemic underlying causes are still prevalent in accident causation."

The Pegasus Airlines flight was likely an engine or thrust problem, he said, and the Saratov Airlines flight had been caused by ice covering the speed sensors as the heaters were not turned on, despite it being the middle of winter.

The Iran Aseman Airlines, and US-Bangla crash were also avoidable, Mr Straker said.

On Monday, US-Bangla's chief executive Imran Asif said there had been a "fumble from the control tower" as the plane approached the airport's single runway.

Recordings of the conversation between air traffic control and the pilot appear to indicate confusion over which end of Kathmandu airport's single runway the plane was to approach.

"Kathmandu, well Nepal as a country, is on the ICAO blacklist as it has failed so many audits - it cannot recover without significant investment in infrastructure," Mr Straker said.

"A renewed and dedicated effort inline with the ICAO initiative 'No country left behind' can bring support and much-needed expertise to countries without the effective infrastructure to support a fully enabled safety investigation process, increasing regional safety and oversight in regions where infrastructure and expertise are at a premium."

However, Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at StrategicAero Research, said it was "totally wrong to wonder why one year has had successive incidents and previous years may not have had any".

"Equally, it's unfair and irresponsible to try and connect [the crashes] in any way at all either and air transport remains by far and away the single most safest method of travel in the world".

He said pilots regularly trained for different scenarios, and accidents happened in unknown quantities. The flight paths from the UAE to Turkey, over Iran, are well-used as the most efficient air corridor for that region, he said, and also helped to avoid airspace around Iraq and Syria.

"Human error is always possible, and it has happened in various crashes - but the events of 2018 are still under investigation and nothing is clear about any of the crashes yet let alone pilot error being a factor," Mr Ahmad said.


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