Fewer airliners crashed in 2009, but more died

February 19, 2010
Abram I. Bohrer


WASHINGTON — Fewer airliners crashed around the world last year, but more people died in the accidents, an industry group said Thursday.

The number of deaths rose to 685 from 502 the previous year, the International Air Transport Association said. Yet the number of deadly accidents dropped to 18 from 23 the year before, a major accident rate that was the second-lowest on record, the association said.

The good news is that the accident rate is half of what it was in the 1990s, a safety expert said. Better warning systems help keep pilots from flying planes into the ground and help them turn to avoid midair collisions, said Jim Burin, director of technical programs at the Flight Safety Foundation.

The bad news is that the accident rate improved mainly in the first half of the last decade, Burin said.

“The last half we basically haven’t improved at all,” he said. “It’s been pretty static.”

Three accidents accounted for most of the deaths:

_ Air France Flight 447 disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean en route from Brazil to France with 228 people aboard on June 1. French authorities announced Wednesday that they will begin a new $13 million search for the remains of the Airbus A330.

_ A Yemenia Airways Airbus A310 crashed into the Indian Ocean off the Comoros Islands on June 30, killing 152 people on board. A 12-year-old girl clinging to debris survived.

_ A Russian-made jetliner bound for Armenia crashed in northwest Iran shortly after taking off from Tehran on July 15. All 168 people on board were killed.

The annual number of deaths has fluctuated over the past decade, peaking in 2005 at 1,035, the association said.

The major accident rate for 2009 — 0.7 accidents per million flights — was the second lowest ever and is more than a third lower than the rate 10 years ago, the association said. The rate is based on Western-built jets destroyed, substantially damaged or written off as losses by air carriers.

Burin, whose aviation safety organization is based in Alexandria, Va., said pilots flying planes into the ground were once the top cause of airline crashes, but those kinds of accidents have been all but eliminated by better warning systems. Another improvement was replacement of many cockpit gauges with computer screens that are easier for pilots to read and give them quicker to access more information, Burin said.