August 22, 1997 in Nation/World

Airline Crash Course Accident Probes Often Costly Mistake, Human Error Usually At Fault, Says Study.

Tom Belden Knight-Ridder

It’s a consuming - and, perhaps, distracting - passion.

Over the next few years, American taxpayers and particularly airline passengers will pay well over a billion dollars in an intensive hunt for ways to never repeat the extraordinary events that brought down TWA Flight 800 and a ValuJet Airlines DC-9 last year.

But the intensive search for a mechanical or terrorism-related cause to the accidents may have diverted attention away from the smartest - and probably the least expensive - way to make all flying safer, some experts contend.

To really save lives, the aviation authorities say, pilots and a host of people on the ground must be better trained to prevent the most common kind of accidents.

What aviators call “controlled flight into terrain,” or CFIT - when a pilot unintentionally flies a wellfunctioning, mechanically sound aircraft into the ground or water - accounts for half of all airline accidents worldwide, according to statistics compiled by the Federal Aviation Administration and privatesector groups.

In four out of five crashes, “human factors,” most often an error on the part of the pilot, are determined to be either the primary cause or a contributing factor, the data show.

“The question is how much should we focus on something that happens every 30 million flights, or should the priority be something that happens every 500,000 flights,” Boeing Co. spokesman Russ Young said.

While it’s understandable that families of the victims, the airline industry, government regulators and the media are focused on finding the causes of the TWA and ValuJet crash, the knowledge gained from the investigation may not make flying measurably safer, one authority asserted.

“Looking at the most recent accidents, each appears to be unique and does not reveal any obvious trend or similarity to the others,” said Stuart Matthews, chairman of the Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit, independent research organization based in Alexandria, Va.

“But if (aviation crash) data are reviewed over 10 years, more specific trends can be identified,” Matthews continued, in a statement issued by the foundation in late 1996. “Surely, resources should be aimed at the causes of those accidents that are responsible for the most fatalities.”

Studies the safety foundation has done of air accidents from the late-1970s through the mid-1990s indicate that the greatest impact on aviation safety can come from preventing CFIT accidents, Matthews said.

“By focusing on and reducing these types of accidents, we have the potential to significantly reduce the overall accident rate,” he said.

Neither the airline industry nor other agencies have an accurate estimate of how much is being spent to train pilots and others, or do research on human factors in aviation safety.

But “we know there are enormous amounts of money being spent” to fix other causes of crashes, Matthews said. “We say let’s spend money on things we know will improve safety.”

Flying relatively safe

Despite the massive attention paid to airline safety over the past year because of both the TWA and the ValuJet crashes, flying on a scheduled airline remains one of the least risky ways to get between two points. The chances of a passenger dying in an airline crash in this country are one in 1-1/2 million, making it safer than driving to the airport, climbing in and out of a bath or going outside in a lightning storm.

The airline accident rate has been going down steadily in recent years, but there will always be room for improvement, especially in the developing world. In parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia, there are 30 times more air crashes than there are in the United States, Canada, Western Europe or Australia and New Zealand.

While the actual rate of fatalities may continue to go down as the technology of airplanes develop, the world should get used to hearing about far more accidents in the future, the Flight Safety Foundation says.

Because air travel is growing steadily around the globe, with the number of passengers expected to double by 2010, unless more resources are devoted to CFIT research, the actual number of accidents could rise to a rate of practically one a week, the organization has said.

The Flight Safety Foundation has critics of its own, who say the organization places too much emphasis of CFIT crashes and pilot training, in part because the group likes to promote a CFIT training program for pilots that it developed. The 52-year-old organization has more than 600 members, mostly airlines, aerospace manufacturers and others involved in commercial aviation, and it gets the members to pay for distributing the CFIT training kits.

While many in the airline business agree that it’s worth listening to the foundation’s arguments, some observers also caution that government safety officials have a responsibility to examine every possible way to make flying safer.

“There are a whole host of potential problems … a panoply of people and equipment that you have to look at,” said Michael Korens, an aviation consultant and former counsel to the Senate aviation subcommittee. “Most people I’ve talked to don’t ascribe to a magic bullet solution. It needs to be more of a systemic approach.”

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