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The Two Worlds Of Aviation

Two recent reports appearing a day apart in the US media highlighted the dichotomy between first-world and third-world aviation safety standards.


November 30, 2007
By Richard Purser

Topics

Two
recent reports appearing a day apart in the US media highlighted the
dichotomy between first-world and third-world aviation safety standards.

On Sept. 30 the New York Times reported on the end of a 10-year White
House mandate to the airline industry and its regulators to cut the
domestic rate of fatal scheduled airline accidents by 80%. The mandate
followed two notorious crashes in 1996 – TWA off New York’s Long Island
and ValuJet in the Florida Everglades – that together killed 375 people.

The 1997 mandate was set by a national commission on aviation safety
headed by then Vice-President Al Gore, and at its end the three-year
average rate of fatal crashes was down by 65% from the three years
ended Sept. 30, 1997. It wasn’t the targeted 80%, but a
still-satisfying drop from one fatal accident per 2 million departures
to one per 4.5 million departures. As of Sept. 30, there had been no
fatal scheduled airliner crashes at all in the US in 2007.

Improvements have included analyzing patterns in ‘safe’ flights that
may indicate impending problems (since there are so few crashes to
investigate), improving procedures (such as in ‘unstabilized
approaches’) and equipment (such as enhanced ground proximity warning
systems).

To further head toward the 80% reduction target as traffic increases
and very light jets are entering the scene will require replacement of
the FAA’s old ATC system, a move now stuck in the political gridlock
that affects everything in Washington, DC from immigration reform to
health-care reform to how to fight wars. But many safety specialists
fear most the rise in ‘ground proximity events’ or runway incursions.
The FAA is said to be working on improving the tracking of airplanes on
the ground.

That report was on the bright side. On the next day, Oct. 1, came a
report in the Wall Street Journal that brought up the dark side. It
came from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, the capital of that country’s
important oil industry. The 2004-06 passenger airliner fatality rate in
Africa was 2.73 fatal accidents per million flights, compared with 0.1
in North America and 0.44 worldwide.

That overall figure was shocking enough, but the WSJ article dwelt on a
specific case: the Dec. 10, 2005 crash of a Sosoliso Airlines DC-9 at
Port Harcourt Airport with 108 deaths, including 60 children returning
from boarding school at the national capital of Abuja 300 miles away.
(There were two survivors.) The plane landed in a sudden local storm
about whose severity and wind shear conditions the pilots had not been
warned (the airport had no meteorological equipment), and the runway
edge lights were off. (The runway had no centreline lights.) The crew
went well below the decision altitude without having visual contact
with the runway; they tried to abort at the last instant, but too late.

The airline has lost its operating licence and the airport, shut down
for repairs after the crash, is still closed. The findings of the
Nigerian Aviation Ministry’s report on the accident make for unpleasant
reading.