London - Seventy-five people have died after a chartered plane, carrying the squad of a top Brazilian football team, crashed outside the Colombian city of Medellin. Yet, despite this latest tragedy, flying is remarkably safe – and is getting safer.
Question: Is this a bad year for aviation?
Answer: No. Despite this latest tragedy, 2016 has so far been one of the safest on record.
The arithmetic of air crashes is awful. While many accidents are survivable – such as the Emirates crash in Dubai in August, when all 300 people on board escaped – some are not. Each victim represents a terrible tragedy for their family and friends. But compared with almost every other form of transport, aviation is extremely safe, and with barely a month remaining 2016 may end with one of the lowest death tolls on record.
The Lamia crash at Medellín, in which 71 people died, is the worst accident this year, and the third involving a passenger jet.
The first was Flydubai flight 981 from Dubai which crashed during a second attempted landing at Rostov-on-Don in Russia, with the loss of 62 lives. The second was Egyptair flight 804 from Paris to Cairo in May, in which 66 people died when the Airbus A320 came down in the Mediterranean.
In addition there were two crashes of passenger propeller planes on domestic flights: a Sunbird Aviation crash in Papua New Guinea, when 13 lives were lost, and a Tara Air flight in Nepal, in which 23 people died.
The year has also witnessed one other fatal incident: a Daallo Airlines Airbus A321 flying from Mogadishu in Somalia to Djibouti, when an explosion took place and a single passenger – believed to be a terrorist bomber – was blown out of a hole in the fuselage. The aircraft landed safely with the remaining 80 people.
Q: How does 2016 compare with earlier years?
A: So far, it is outstanding. Discounting the Daallo Airlines event, the death toll for the year stands at 240 – far better than the previous two years, even though there are more people and planes flying than ever.
In 2015, 560 passengers died. The worst crash was of a Metrojet flight from Sharm el Sheikh to St Petersburg, Russia, which killed 224. The next highest death toll was on Germanwings from Barcelona to Dusseldorf, whose first officer, Andreas Lubitz, committed suicide and mass murder when he flew his Airbus A320 into the French Alps, killing all 150 on board.
Human intervention was also responsible for much of the death toll in 2014, notably the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew. The loss of MH370 from the same airline, in which 239 people are presumed to have died, is still unexplained.
Q: How does aviation compare with other forms of transport?
A: Given the vast number of airline passengers and aircraft movements, flying is extremely safe. More than three billion people have flown this year. Including the Colombian crash, that means more than 12.5 million have flown safely for every death. The last fatal crash involving a UK airline was the 1989 Kegworth disaster involving a British Midland Boeing 737, in which 47 people died.
Trains are also very safe. In a typical year more people are killed on the railways than in the air. Figures are more elusive than for aviation, but relative to the number of passengers rail probably has the edge.
All other popular forms of transport are more dangerous, with the roads particularly lethal. Britain is one of the safest countries in the world for road users, but last year 1 732 people died in crashes — the equivalent of five fully loaded jumbo jets.
Yet many more people are fearful of flying than they are of driving, or indeed cycling or walking – which, per mile, are more dangerous still. Worst of all is the motorbike: last year in the UK, on average one motorcyclist died each day.
Q: Is Colombia, where the latest crash happened, and Latin America in general, particularly dangerous for flying?
A: No. Flying in Colombia, and in the rest of Latin America, has particular challenges. The terrain is often mountainous, with airports at high elevations; Medellín, where the Lamia jet came down, is over 7,000 feet above sea level. In lower lying areas, such as the Amazon basin, tropical storms present a threat. Other issues in the past have included the radar equipment at Colombia’s Cali airport being blown up by Farc guerrillas, which is thought to have contributed to the 1995 crash of American Airlines flight 965 from Miami. But pilots in Latin America are well trained and highly professional, and in the past decade the region’s safety record has been good.
Q: What can be learnt from the tragedy at Medellín?
A: It is far too early to tell. Investigators will look at many factors including the condition of the aircraft, the amount of fuel (the flight from Santa Cruz was 1,850 miles, a long sector for the RJ85 jet), the behaviour of the pilots (as recorded on the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder), air-traffic controllers and the prevailing weather. But aviation safety is based on analysis of accidents, and no doubt some lessons will be learned that should make flying even safer in future.