WASHINGTON – Only 34 people have died in U.S. commercial airline crashes in the past three years, making it one of the safest periods in aviation history even as more Americans than ever travel by air.
On Oct. 20, a Corporate Airlines (search) twin-engine turboprop crashed into the woods on approach to the Kirksville Regional Airport in Missouri, killing 13 people. Those were the only fatalities aboard U.S. scheduled airlines for the year.
National Transportation Safety Board (search) chairman Ellen Engleman Conners, noting that some 42,000 people die every year on the roads, said, "I hope all modes of transportation could replicate aviation's safety record."
The last U.S. crash of a jumbo jet was Nov. 12, 2001, when American Airlines (search) Flight 587 lost part of its tail and plummeted into a New York City neighborhood, killing 265 people. Safety investigators concluded that the crash was caused by the pilot moving the rudder back and forth too aggressively, which put more pressure on the tail than it could bear.
Last year, the number of fatal accidents per 100,000 departures was .015. Air travelers are estimated to have boarded planes 685 million times in 2004, a 3 percent increase over 2000, the previous busiest year, according to the Air Transport Association (search).
Marion Blakey, who heads the Federal Aviation Administration (search), said new technology has improved safety. For example, many planes now have systems that warn pilots if they're about to fly too close to the ground.
Jets and turboprops manufactured after March 29, 2003, are required by federal regulations to have a so-called Terrain Awareness and Warning System (search). All other planes with more than six seats must be retrofitted with the devices by March 29, 2005.
The plane that crashed in Missouri in October was months away from being outfitted with a terrain-warning system that might have prevented the accident.
On the ground, 34 major airports have been equipped with systems that warn air traffic controllers of a potential collision on runways. One of the worst aviation disasters in history involved two jumbo jets that ran into each other on a runway in Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1977, killing 582 people.
Weather radar and wind shear alert systems also have helped eliminate accidents caused when planes encounter concentrated downward bursts of wind on approach to the airport.
Safety experts agree that better training and awareness of safety issues have played a big part in making U.S. skies safer.
A key effort has been the FAA's formation in 1997 of the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (search), which set the goal of reducing fatal aviation accident rates by 80 percent by 2007. The accident rate has fallen 50 percent since then, and is on track to meet the goal, said FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette.
As part of the CAST project, airline unions and management, along with federal agencies and manufacturers, are collaborating on identifying safety problems and solving them. Among the 85 safety improvements CAST is working on include:
— Teaching pilots how to recover from unusual flight conditions that could be dangerous.
— Developing tougher standards for icing-prevention technology on new planes.
— Establishing new procedures for air traffic controllers to prevent collisions on runways.
Blakey said such cooperation hasn't always been the norm.
"At an earlier point in aviation's development, there was less incentive, less willingness to be candid about problems," Blakey said.
Though pilots often are at odds with their employers, they do agree that airline management shares their commitment to safety.
Paul Rice, vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association (search), said airline executives realize that safety enhances the bottom line.
"If there's a big plane crash, people stop flying," Rice said.
Rice points to a change in federal regulations, which took effect Dec. 14, 1995, as a key development for aviation safety.
On that day, all commercial air carriers — from commuter planes with 10 or more passenger seats to jumbo jets — were required to follow the same safety rules for operating. Before then planes with 30 or fewer seats fell under less stringent regulations than bigger aircraft.
Echoing the caution of many safety experts, Bill Waldock, aviation safety professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (search) in Arizona, characterized the past few years as "safer, not safe."
Waldock noted much was made of the fact 2002 ended without a single person dying in a commercial airline accident. Eight days into 2003, 21 people were killed in a plane crash in Charlotte, N.C.
"When we have a real safe period, people get complacent," Waldock said.