The accident rate for U.S. airlines hovered near a record low in 2014, according to preliminary data released by federal crash investigators, even as aviation experts see a spate of foreign crashes leaving average fliers increasingly concerned about safety.
As U.S. passenger airlines racked up their fifth straight year without a fatal crash, last week the National Transportation Safety Board reported that the overall mishap rate for domestic carriers was one accident for roughly 300,000 departures, barely higher than the record low figure of one accident for every 400,000 or so flights the year before. By another measure, the latest data amounts to one accident per roughly 700,000 flight hours, or about half as frequently as during the late 1990s.
Commercial aviation in this country has become so safe that pilots routinely go through an entire career without ever experiencing engine trouble serious enough to result in an in-flight shutdown. In the extremely rare circumstance that an engine falters precisely during the moment of takeoff—the most critical moment of any flight—some jetliner models have automated systems able to compensate and safely make the plane climb with minimal input from the cockpit crew. Based on statistics, taxiing around crowded airports has become the most hazardous portion of flights in this country.
“We find ourselves with the kind of problem you want to have,” according to Peggy Gilligan, the Federal Aviation Administration’s top safety official. “Safety numbers are already so low that you must count close calls, accidents that didn’t happen” to target safety enhancements, she noted in the text of a speech to state aviation officials last Saturday in Washington.
Last year, a total of 641 people died around the world in commercial aviation, and the rate of serious jet accidents hit a historic low, according to the International Air Transport Association, the leading global airline industry trade group.
But despite such gains, experts agree that recent crashes—including high-profile fatal events in fast-growing Asian markets—have prompted the mistaken public perception that airline travel may be more risky today than in recent years. Roughly 3.5 billion airline passengers are expected to fly world-wide this year on almost 40 million scheduled flights.
Tony Tyler, IATA’s chief executive, has said that “Asia certainly grabbed the headlines” recently, “and not in the way they would have wanted.” Earlier this year, Mr. Tyler said that unless one-of-a-kind events such as the mysterious 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 are resolved, they will leave “a shadow over us for a while” and potentially erode public confidence in the industry.
Patrick Ky, Europe’s top safety regulator, has gone further. While “safety indicators have never been better,” the executive director of the European Aviation Safety Agency believes general public perception of industry safety probably has never been worse. The reason, Mr. Ky said during an interview earlier this summer, “is that there were a couple of recent, very dramatic” events that grabbed the public’s attention, including Flight 370 and the suspected pilot suicide that brought down Germanwings Flight 9525 in March.
“One Germanwings is one too many, for sure,” Mr. Ky said. “The challenge that I put to our organization is to aim for zero accidents, which we will never reach.”
In the U.S., the preliminary NTSB data shows there was a roughly 15% increase in the number of fatal general aviation accidents in 2014, climbing to 253 from 222 a year earlier. Despite government and industry efforts to reduce crashes involving private planes, there also was an uptick in the overall rate of all types of accidents involving such aircraft, measured against estimated flight hours nationwide.