Number of Yearly Fatalities due to Air Transport Crashes, 1918-2021

Number of Yearly Fatalities due to Air Transport Crashes, 1918-2021

Source: Aircraft Crashes Record Office, Geneva.

Like all modes of transportation, air transport is subject to accidents that can be due to human (67%) or technical (20%) causes, and rarely due to atmospheric conditions (6%). Since air accident statistics started to be systematically compiled, 54% of all accidents took place less than 10 km from an airport. 50% and 21% of all accidents took place during the landing and takeoff phases, respectively. The evolution of the yearly number of fatalities is astonishing. Despite the incredible growth of air traffic over the past century, the annual number of civil aviation fatalities in the 2010s was about the same as in the 1930s. Notably, aviation safety has improved both in low-income and high-income regions, though the accident rate is still higher in the former.

The great strides in aviation safety are the outcome of better aircraft designs, improved pilot training, better navigation and control systems, as well as comprehensive accident management aiming at identifying the causes and then possible mitigation strategies. For instance, on August 2, 1985, Delta Flight 191 from Fort Lauderdale ran into a developing thunderstorm and wind shear conditions on its final approach to Dallas / Fort Worth Airport (DFW). The strong and unstable winds forced the plane, a Lockheed L-1011, to hit the ground before the runway, resulting in 135 fatalities. An investigation of the cause of the accident led to substantial revisions in airport emergency procedures and upgrades in weather detection equipment. More recently, on June 1, 2009, Air France Flight 447, en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, crashed in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Brazil. Temporarily defective air sensor speed readings due to ice accumulation and pilot error caused an aerodynamic stall that crashed the plane, resulting in 228 fatalities. After investigation, civil aviation authorities recommended better training concerning stall recovery at high altitudes and retrofitting of planes with heated airspeed sensors. A thorough systematic approach to accident investigation will lead to further improvement in the safety record.