Plane Crash Fatalities Rise in 2020 Despite Huge Reduction in Traffic

All around the world, analysts have been looking for the silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud. You would be forgiven for thinking that due to a reduction in flights, the number of people killed in passenger aircraft crashes would have reduced, adding to that silver lining, but you’d be wrong. In fact, there were 299 fatalities in 2020, up from 257 in 2019.

To70’s civil aviation safety review examines accidents involving large passenger aircraft and includes all contributory factors such as technical performance, human performance and environmental conditions as well as unlawful interference events.

2020 began with the shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 near Tehran, Iran on January 8, killing all 176 passengers and crew. Iran initially denied responsibility for the incident, but later admitted it had shot down the Boeing 737 “unintentionally”. More than a year after the fatal incident, the review has not been completed, despite several calls from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

In August, a black box recorder recovered from the Flight 752 crash site revealed that there was a conversation in the cockpit following the first missile strike, indicating that pilots and passengers were alive before a second missile hit 25 seconds later. Details of the conversation have not been disclosed.

In total, there were 40 accidents involving large passenger aircraft in 2020. Five of these, including Flight 752, were fatal. The circumstances around a number of the accidents is cause for concern.

Three of the five fatal accidents in 2020 and several of the non-fatal ones relate to aeroplanes that left the paved surface of the runway; runway excursions. To70’s report reveals that these events have been contributed to by events leading up to the final approach and landing. For example, an accident in Turkey in February and another in India in August occurred in heavy rain. The latter also, reportedly, landed with a strong tailwind. An accident in Pakistan in May followed an initial hard landing and go-around that appears to have damaged the engines, resulting in the undershoot on the subsequent approach. 

To70 says flight performance calculations made prior to approach and the timely use of the go-around manoeuvre remain key factors in accidents and more must be done to understand both the human and technology roles in these situations. 

Homeland Security Today has reported on the Boeing 737 MAX’s re-entry into service following its grounding in March 2019 after 346 people died in two crashes – Lion Air Flight 610 on October 29, 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10, 2019. In December, the Senate Commerce Committee found ‘troubling’ safety oversight issues and obstruction at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), noting that “FAA senior leaders may have obstructed a DOT OIG review of the 737 MAX crashes”. Boeing is keen to start the year anew and has recently agreed to pay $2.5 billion to settle a criminal charge related to these crashes.

The 737 MAX is now one of the most tested passenger aircraft in service, but it is likely to take some time before passenger confidence is restored.

Already in 2021, a Boeing 737 passenger jet has crashed shortly after taking off from Jakarta, Indonesia. 50 passengers and 12 crew were on board. The aircraft was 27 years old and did not have the stall-prevention system implicated in the MAX safety crisis. The black boxes were recovered on January 10 and investigations will commence.

Clearly, traffic levels have not had a correlation to the number of fatal accidents in 2020. It is worth remembering that the pandemic resulted in varied impacts on human performance as well as staffing levels, and will continue to do so. To70 adds that skills fade will be a critical issue as the aviation industry returns to capacity.

“Significant efforts are being placed on assuring that the low-level of operations these past months do not adversely affect safety in the future. The training of all operational staff and the need to ensure that we provide appropriate skill refreshers continually through the return to normal operations, noting a possible yo-yo effect in traffic levels, is a priority,” states the report. “The return to service of large numbers of aeroplanes that have been ‘parked’ during the pandemic is also a topic that will require attention.”

If 2020 was a challenging year for commercial aviation, 2021 brings further risks as travel restrictions ease and traffic levels increase. It is paramount that the industry intensifies its focus on the fundamentals of safe flight to prevent further loss of life.

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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