Often a topic that air travelers prefer not to contemplate, air accidents are the subject of rigorous research that shows a continuously improving safety record over the past eight decades. Nevertheless, data from the Flight Safety Foundation's 2021 Safety Report identifies risks that need proactive attention. “Some of the risks, such as loss of control-in-flight (LOC-I), are well understood and have been documented thoroughly over the years by the Foundation and other organizations," it said. "Other risks have been less well studied and require increased attention. In addition, operational changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic pose potential threats if not identified and mitigated.”
While about 23 percent of accidents in 2021 could not be classified into accident categories based on available data, the report identified three main risk areas: runway excursions (RE), LOC-I, and controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), all of which ranked among ICAO's five high-risk categories (HRC) of occurrence.
“LOC-I accidents accounted for 10 percent of all accidents in 2021 and three of the 11 fatal commercial accidents, including the year’s deadliest accident, the January 9 crash of a Sriwijaya Air Boeing 737-500 that resulted in 62 fatalities,” the report said.
In 2021, commercial passenger and cargo operations involving aircraft certified to carry at least 14 passengers suffered 44 accidents. Of the total, 11 fatal accidents resulted in 123 deaths among passengers and crew, with one person killed on the ground, data shows. Seven of the 11 fatal accidents, and 20 accidents in total, occurred in the cargo segment, said the Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) report.
Last year, noncommercial operations in surveying, training, parachuting, and test flights saw 26 accidents, nine of them fatal, in which 50 people died. Corporate jets suffered 28 accidents in 2021; nine of them proved fatal and resulted in 36 passenger and crew deaths.
Mark Millam, director at the Flight Safety Foundation, told AIN the aviation industry had seen a remarkable long-term downward trend in accident rate and numbers in recent decades. In some sectors, those rates have plateaued with variability in accidents from year to year. During Covid, the rates proved better for some sectors and worse for others, but not outside the degree of normal variability.
“At Flight Safety Foundation, we are expecting to continue the long downward trend because of the continuing work of our members and other aviation organizations around the world,” he said. “We know that if the rate of accidents remains the same, large increases in traffic would mean that the overall number of accidents would increase. That is unacceptable and motivates our everyday work to continue to improve aviation safety performance.”
The report said the number of commercial operation fatal accidents last year increased from eight in 2020, but fatalities in 2021 declined more than 60 percent, from the 315 passengers and crew killed in 2020’s accidents. The report also cited two noncommercial fatal accidents that resulted in four deaths in 2020. A year earlier, commercial operations recorded 20 fatal accidents that resulted in 285 fatalities among passengers and crew and another six people on the ground. Noncommercial operations saw three fatal accidents and six deaths in 2019.
A striking feature of the FSF’s report appears in a graph representing fatal accidents from 1946 to 2021, along with a five-year moving average. The report said such accidents had trended steadily downward since the late 1990s. Since 2012, the total number of fatal accidents per year has involved 20 aircraft or fewer.
Nevertheless, Millam said the industry needs to reach a point where it measures years between accidents rather than the number of accidents per year. “Some sectors of aviation are very close to that milestone today, and ICAO has set an aspirational goal of reaching zero accidents by 2030 with their Global Aviation Safety Plan," he said. "We are concerned with all sectors of aviation, and some sectors are still further away from the milestone we are interested in.”
The case of the MH370 crash has recently attracted a flurry of interest, spurring hopes that investigators will eventually solve the mystery surrounding its disappearance in 2014.
“We continue to hope that evidence will be found that allows investigators to determine what happened,” Millam said. “Families and friends of the victims deserve to know [the truth]. Also, figuring out what happened increases the industry’s chances of preventing a similar failure in the future.”