Although the airline industry survived terrible financial losses -- $54.5 billion in the last ten years, safety remained a priority and actually improved in the United States. Some nations remain significantly riskier for flying – Russia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia today have notably high rates of air crashes. Africa, which has three percent of the world’s air traffic, had 14 percent of the world’s fatal crashes.
Worldwide, 2011 was the second safest year on record to fly, with 507 persons dying in crashes. Seven of the twenty-eight planes in fatal crashes occurred on airlines prohibited from flying into the European Union due to known safety issues. The safest year worldwide was 2004 with 323 deaths, but there were fewer passengers that year.
Significant factors for the improved air safety:
- New aircraft and their engines reflect what was learned from previous mistakes. Accident investigations have changed procedures to avoid repeating past errors.
- Information is shared more thoroughly and efficiently than before. Databases allow pilots, airlines, manufacturers and government regulators to track the accidents and the near misses. Some statistics are kept runway-by-runway to spot opportunities to improve safety.
- Safety audits by outsiders such as the International Air Transport Association, an industry group that began its audit program in 2003. In addition, airlines demonstrate to the industry and to other airlines t6hat maintenance and safety procedures are proper – a method that has also decreased insurance rates for airlines by ten percent over the last decade.
- An experienced workforce that has been working for decades, especially in North America and in Europe. Experience makes for better split-second decisions and for more thorough training of younger employees. As an example, former US Airways captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger spent thirty years as a pilot and was praised for his safe ditching of a plane in the Hudson River in 2009 after multiple bird strikes stalled both engines shortly after takeoff. [All passengers were recovered after the water landing with no fatalities].
- Luck. It takes just one accident of a large aircraft to ruin the safety trend for a year, but this has not occurred lately. Very large capacity aircraft, such as the Airbus A380, are coming. These planes have a very large passenger capacity.
The last large airline crash in the United States was American Airlines Flight 587 in 2001, which crashed just after taking off from New York, killing 265 people.
There have been some close calls – in April, a Southwest Airlines Aircraft ruptured a five-foot section of its fuselage, causing a loss of cabin pressure. A year earlier, another Southwest plane came within 200 feet of colliding with a small private aircraft at an airport in California. An American Airlines jet landing in the rain in Jamaica in December of 2009 was unable to come to a halt on the runway; it crashed through a fence, crossed a street and stopped o the beach. In December of 2005, a Southwest jet skidded off a Chicago runway; there were no passenger fatalities, but a 9-year-old boy was killed, though he was riding in a passing car at the time.
The bad economy may have indirectly made flying safer. In a boom time, airlines grow quickly and there is pressure to create new captains. In the present environment, they spend longer assisting and learning from the present captains.