Air travel 2014: Highest fatality in almost a decade

But still statistically safe.
Most incidents in Asia, should we worry?

The tragedy of AirAsia QZ8501 at the end of 2014 made it the most deadly year for air travel since 2005. The 162 lives lost on board the Airbus A-320 jet added to the 762 other fatalities from seven other incidents, bringing it to a total of 924 civil aviation-related deaths last year. In 2005, 1,014 flight fatalities were recorded.

Remarkably, though, eight incidents in a year is the lowest ever recorded in the history of modern aviation, and this includes the highly unusual event of flight MH17 being shot down by surface-to-air missile on 17 July. In 2005, the fatalities involved 24 different flight incidents.

Most of the fatalities in 2014 were from MH370, which went missing on 8 March along with its 227 passengers and 12 crew members, and MH17, which had 283 passengers and 15 crew members on board; both received widespread media coverage for their unprecedented, mysterious and unlikely circumstances which might have triggered aviophobia even in the most frequent of flyers.

But according to the Geneva-based International Air Transport Association, 2014 is still one of the safest years in air travel when measured against flight volume. As of 30 September, hull loss (when the plane sustains irreparable damage) rate was 0.22 per million flights, lower than the average of 0.37 from the last five years.

MH370, MH17 and QZ8501 all belonged to Malaysia-based carriers, and a further 87 people were killed in two other flight incidents – Taiwan’s TransAsia Airway aircraft, which attempted to land in bad weather and crashed in July, and an Iranian Sepahan Airlines flight which crashed shortly after take-off in August; these incidents have cast doubts and dark shadows on safety in Asian aviation, a region which has been earmarked as the leader of the aviation industry in the decades to come. Speculations have thus arose that the industry’s swift expansion might have led to lapses in safety standards. Except for MH17 and engine failure of the Sepahan Airlines’ aircraft, the causes of 2014’s incidents are still being investigated. Up until QZ8501, AirAsia had not experienced any fatal incidents since commencing operations in 1996 and Malaysia Airlines’ last crash before this year was in 1995; both airlines have excellent safety ratings.

Indonesian airlines have had a particularly shoddy safety record that in 2007 the European Union thought it justifiable to impose a blanket ban on all Indonesian airlines from flying into any of its member countries. The ban was lifted in 2009, but the country’s main carrier – Lion Air – is still prohibited by the EU.

Asia-Pacific now accounts for 31% of civil aviation traffic, according to IATA, and this number is expected to climb to 42% in the next two decades. Boeing estimates that the region will need 216,000 new pilots by then but the region has yet to establish sufficient pilot-training facilities to cope with demand; in other words, insufficient workers and growing workload lead to greater risks.

That being said, 100,000 flights occur everyday worldwide without incident. In 2013, there were 210 fatalities out of more than 3 billion people who flew; even with the record high fatality rate of 2014, the chances of perishing in a plane crash is still literally one in a few million.


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