More than half the fatalities in 2019 were due to Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March, when a Boeing 737 Max crashed, killing all 157 people on board. Photo: Supplied.

CAPE TOWN – The number of people killed in crashes of scheduled airlines fell by 52 percent to 257 in 2019 from 534 in 2018, according to Dutch aviation consultancy To70.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations specialised agency, said the record low was in 2017 when only 50 people died in 5 crashes for an accident rate of 2.1 per million departures. There were no fatal passenger jet crashes that year, and only two fatal accidents involving regional turboprops that resulted in 13 deaths.

The ICAO Secretary General also drew attention to the fact that aviation’s direct, indirect, and induced economic impacts generated some $56 billion in pan-African gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019, with the related travel and tourism sectors generating another $194 billion. In addition every person directly employed in the aviation sector in Africa supports another 14.8 jobs elsewhere on the continent.

More than half the fatalities in 2019 were due to Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March, when a Boeing 737 Max crashed, killing all 157 people on board. This followed an October 2018 crash, when a Boeing 737 Max operated by Lion Air crashed in similar circumstances, killing all 189 people on board. 

The March 2019 crash then prompted a global ban on flying the Boeing 737 Max until the problem has been resolved to the satisfaction of civil aviation authorities.

The last time there was a scheduled airline crash in South African airspace was on 13 March 1967 when a Vickers Viscount named the Rietbok operated as South African Airways Flight 406 crashed into the sea on approach to the airport at East London. 

All 25 passengers and crew on board were killed. The last fatal South African Airways crash was the Helderberg, which was a flight from Taipei to Johannesburg via Mauritius on 28 November 1987. 

The crew reported a fire on board and then lost contact with air traffic control.  It was later established that it ploughed into the Indian Ocean some 200 kilometers from Mauritius. All 160 people on board died.  

Prior to that crash, the Pretoria, an almost brand new Boeing 707, crashed shortly after take-off on 20 April 1968 from Windhoek, Namibia. Of the 116 passengers and 12 crewmembers on board, only five first-class travellers survived, as the front section had broken away from the rest of the fuselage on impact with the ground. 

The plane had fallen from an altitude of only 200 metres at a groundspeed of approximately 500 kilometres per hour, and it was a miracle anybody survived.  The plane had not yet been equipped with a flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder and the commission of enquiry said the reason for the crash was pilot error, as the flaps had been retracted too early, which led to a loss of lift. 

The last time an air crash in South Africa got extensive media coverage was on 1 June 2002, when the non-scheduled flight with former South African cricket captain Hansie Cronje on board, crashed into the Outeniqua Mountains northeast of the George airport. 

Cronje's scheduled flight home from Johannesburg to George had been grounded, but he hitched a ride as the only passenger aboard a Hawker Siddeley HS 748 turboprop aircraft. Cronje and the two pilots were killed on impact.