The past year has been another exceptionally good year for civil aviation safety, with only three fatal accidents to passenger airliners, all involving small turbo-prop planes, 2017 was much better than could reasonably (and statistically) be expected, and was again better than last year’s remarkable performance.
However, the risks to civil aviation do remain high, as the seriousness of some of the non-fatal accidents shows.
Whilst civil aviation remains an industry with a very high level of safety it does, at the same time, carry large risks.
Our to70 Civil Aviation Safety Review examines accidents only to larger passenger aircraft commonly used by most travellers. (See our criteria in the Note below.) We include all causes, whether technical failure, human error or unlawful interference. In 2016, there were 71 civil aviation accidents of which six resulted in fatalities. This year, 2017, the number is even lower; 111 accidents, three of which included fatalities. There were no accidents in 2017 related to unlawful interference. A total of 14 lives lost in three regional airline accidents:
- An Embraer Brasilia lost control in flight in Angola after, reportedly, suffering an engine failure;
- A Czech-built Let 410 crashed on landing at Nelken in Russia, and
- A passenger died of his injuries two weeks after an ATR42 crashed on take-off at Fond-du-Lac in Canada.
2017 accident data chart:
An estimated three percent growth in air traffic for 2017 over 2016 means that the fatal accident rate for large aeroplane in commercial air transport is again reduced; this time to 0.08 fatal accidents per million flights. That is a rate of one fatal accident for every 12 million flights.
With so few fatal accidents to examine, it is worth remembering that there were also several qute serious non-fatal accidents in 2017. A number of engine related accidents occurred, including the spectacular loss of the engine inlet fan and cowling on an Air France A380. That the aeroplane continued to operate safely to a diversion airport and was then flown home for repair on three engines says a lot about the robustness of the aeroplane. In addition to the non-fatal accidents, there are a number of notable events that have been excluded from the statistics. Examples of these accidents include:
the fatal injury to a person caused by jet blast when standing close to the airport fence at St Maarten’s airport, and
a cargo aeroplane accident at Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, when the aeroplane overran the runway and ended up in a village close to the airport, killing 35 on the ground.
Not all of the safety risks are related to aviation technology. The increasing use of lithium-ion batteries in electronics creates a fire risk on board aeroplanes as such batteries are difficult to extinguish if they catch fire. Airlines worldwide are training their crews to fight any fires in the cabin; the challenge is keeping such batteries out of passenger luggage.
Despite the good news, a note of caution needs to be sounded. Whilst the safety levels of modern civil passenger airplanes remain high, the extraordinarily low accident rate this year must be seen as a case of good fortune. Statistically speaking, in a dataset that starts with over thirty million flights, there is little difference between three accidents and ten accidents. That this year’s accidents only resulted in 14 fatalities is even greater fortune.
There is no room for complacency. Civil aviation, whilst an industry with a very high level of safety, does still carry very large risks.
Looking at the programmes for the first few safety conferences planned for 2018, we see a number of areas requiring attention. The application of new technologies in design, construction and operations is timely in relation to maintenance issues that have arisen on the engines used on the 787 Dreamliner.
Human factors are, understandably, high on the agenda. Mental health issues and fatigue are central to this topic. Another prominent theme amongst safety professionals in the coming year is airline business models and how the industry runs itself.
 Embraer 120, D2-FDO, 12 October 2017
 Let 410 UVP-E20, RA67047, 15 November 2017
 ATR42-300, C-GWEA, 13 December 2017
 Airbus A380-800, F-HPJE en-route over Greenland, 30 September 2017
Note on methodology
To70 uses official figures reported by States to the UN’s aviation agency, ICAO, to determine the number of civil aviation flights that have taken place in any given year. The actual figures, published by the air transport organization, IATA, are used to estimate the current year’s figures. We update our database each year when the actual flight numbers data for the previous year becomes available.
Accident data is derived from publicly-available databases, aviation authority websites and official sources such as ICAO’s ADREP database. Our analysis documents accidents to passenger flights commercial air transport operations in aeroplanes with a maximum take-off mass of 5700 kg or above. This excludes a number of small commuter aeroplanes in service around the world, including the Cessna Caravan (maximum take-off mass 3629 kg). Certain relevant exceptions may be included regarding smaller turbo-prop aeroplanes just below this mass limit (e.g., the De Havilland Twin Otter with a maximum take-off mass of 5670 kg). Accidents to military flights, training flights, private flights, cargo operations and helicopters are excluded. Unlike statistics produced by IATA and ICAO, accidents involving unlawful interference are included in our analysis.
As the vast majority of commercial air transport operations take place with large aeroplanes, the effect of the excluded types on the accident rate is very small.