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IATA Safety Statistics: As Safe as it Gets?

IATA 2019 Safety Report Bears Great News for Commercial Flying

Superseded by other events currently in the news, it would have been easy to miss some optimistic information released by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in early April. Their statistics regarding the safety of air travel in 2019 showed improvement over the previous year, with trends also improving over the last five and 10 year averages. The number of people that died in air travel last year was less than half that of 2018, and was the lowest level in 5 years. To understand just how safe flying has become, in 2019 there were only 1.13 accidents per million flights. Over the last five years the average had been 1.56 accidents per million flights, and over the last ten years it had been 1.96 accidents per million flights; all trending in the right direction.

To understand just how safe this is, IATA uses the term Fatality Risk per million flights, which for 2019 was rated at .09. To translate this into easier terms to understand, this means that on average, a person would have to travel by air every day for 535 years before experiencing an accident with at least one fatality.

Can We Do Even Better?

This is great news, and shows that overall training, operations, and safety management systems are making the safest mode of transportation even more secure. However, when delving into the details, there is one aspect of these statistics that clearly indicates that the cause of those fatalities is very heavily weighted towards a single factor, with ineffective measures being taken to address the problem.

While all accidents are unacceptable, fatal accidents are ultimately the most permanent. Fatal accidents destroy more than equipment, they terminate lives. In their 2019 report IATA tallied 53 total accidents. Of these 53 accidents, only 8 involved fatalities. For the year of 2019, if you were involved in an accident, there was only a 15% chance that someone would be killed.

Here is the problem. Of those 8 fatal accidents in 2019, four of them had the same causal factor: Loss of Control In-flight (LOC-I). However, it gets worse than that. Those four LOC-I accidents, representing half of all fatal accidents in 2019 didn’t cause 50% of the fatalities. Those four LOC-I accidents were responsible for 80% of all airline fatalities in 2019 (192 of 240 people). To sum it up, 7.5% of the accidents in 2019 caused 80% of the fatalities.

Clearly, this data suggests that although flying in general is continuing to become even more safe, there is something that we are missing when it comes to preparing pilots to avoid, prevent, and, if necessary, recover from an airplane upset event which could lead to an LOC-I accident. It is no secret what it is we are missing. In 2014 the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) published Document 10011: The Aeroplane Upset Prevention and Recovery Training Manual. After years of careful international study and analysis it was determined that the most effective means to reduce the threat of LOC-I was through Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (UPRT). Their manual very carefully lays out the basis for UPRT, along with the training required to comprehensively address the problem. At the same time, ICAO called for providing UPRT to all pilots prior to Commercial Licensing. It included the recommendation for on-aircraft training in all-attitude maneuvering, utilizing appropriate aircraft and qualified UPRT instructors to provide the greatest margin of safety.

Is Further Improvement Worth the Effort?

The problem is as clear as the solution. What is missing is the collective will to put in place comprehensive UPRT to effectively address the number one cause of aviation fatalities worldwide. The overall costs involved for this training at the licensing level are modest, as is the overall time required. Perhaps the hardest thing is, as an industry, simply understanding and admitting that there is a better way to prepare pilots to prevent LOC-I accidents.

What Are the Implications for Other Aviation Sectors?

Unfortunately, similar studies and statistics are not available for other sectors of aviation such as business and owner/operator sectors. From what we do know, it is apparent that the safety record for other aviation sectors is very good, but may not be quite as stellar.

While UPRT mandates have been put into place for US and many international commercial airline pilots (already arguably the safest sector), pilots in other sectors have been left behind when it comes to training requirements and regulations. In fact, many of the pilots who need UPRT training most may not yet even know about the training or understand the life and death difference this training could make.

As airlines become even safer through the addition of UPRT for all commercial pilots, the training will gain standardization, trust, and momentum in other areas of aviation as well. It is our hope that as many pilots as possible can be informed of and have access to properly conducted UPRT as soon as possible, so that more lives can be saved.

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