January 2, 2018 8:05 pm
President Trump took some credit in a tweet that said 2017 was the safest year on record for commercial aviation. Buzz60
WASHINGTON — President Trump took credit Tuesday for commercial aviation’s remarkable safety record last year. But safety experts say the lack of fatal crashes among U.S. passenger airlines resulted from years of effort to improve technology and training.
Trump tweeted there were “Zero deaths in 2017” for “the best and safety years on record” for “commercial aviation,” and that he had been “very strict” since taking office.
He was describing a safety streak that has continued since the last fatal crash of a U.S. passenger airline in February 2009, when Colgan Air Flight 3407 killed 50 people near Buffalo.
The unblemished U.S. safety record was part of the safest year in commercial-aviation history worldwide, according to the Aviation Safety Network, a group based in the Netherlands that tracks aircraft accidents.
Ten airline accidents worldwide with 79 fatalities represented the first year with fewer than 100 deaths among records dating to 1946, according to the group. For comparison, 16 accidents killed 303 people in 2016, according to the group.
“Since 1997, the average number of airliner accidents has shown a steady and persistent decline, for a great deal thanks to the continuing safety-driven efforts by international aviation organizations such as” the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Air Transport Association and the Flight Safety Foundation, said Harro Ranter, president of the Aviation Safety Network.
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But terms that Trump used in his tweet could generate quibbles in the industry. For example, Trump cited “commercial airlines” in his tweet, a term that typically refers to both passenger and cargo carriers.
One of the 10 fatal accidents last year was an Air Cargo Carriers crash at Charleston-Yeager Airport in West Virginia, which killed the two pilots aboard that Shorts 330-200 aircraft on May 5, 2017.
While safety has been improving for years, measures adopted in recent years — and a Trump proposal to privatize air-traffic control — remain contentious.
The Federal Aviation Administration adopted three major rules to boost safety after the Colgan crash. One of the rules lengthened mandatory rest periods between shifts for passenger airline pilots, but not cargo pilots, a disparity which remains disputed among pilots and some lawmakers.
Another rule required recurrent training for pilots, including about how to avoid stalls in flight as happened in crashes of the Colgan plane and Air France Flight 447 over the Atlantic later in 2009.
The third rule derived from the Colgan crash required co-pilots to have the same 1,500 hours of flight experience as captains, with fewer hours required for military pilots and college graduates.
Airlines and some lawmakers have criticized the provision, saying it worsens a shortage of qualified pilots and that classroom education could provide adequate training.
Trump’s nominee to the National Transportation Safety Board, Bruce Landsberg, faced harsh questions at his Senate confirmation hearing for saying he preferred performance-based qualifications rather than an arbitrary requirement for training hours.
Aviation safety experts said reducing the number of accidents is a result of years of improvements in training, technology and management, rather than “very strict” action taken by Trump.
“This has been a long-time process,” said Seth Young, director of the Center for Aviation Studies at Ohio State University. “I don’t think we can point to anything that we did in 2017 that resulted in zero fatals in United States airlines. But 2017 was evidence of a solid decade of improvements.”
For technology, the FAA is upgrading air-traffic control to track planes with satellite-based GPS that is more precise than ground-based radar. Better weather forecasts allow pilots to avoid storms.
At airports, pavement has been engineered to crumble and halt a plane that veers off a runway. Vice President Pence learned the value of this engineering when his campaign plane left the runway at New York’s LaGuardia airport in October 2016.
Among management efforts, airlines are working with the FAA to identify risks and fix them before an accident occurs. A pilot, for example, might report an aircraft alarm went off unexpectedly or where an airport has confusing signage.
Accidents could still happen with a heightened attention to safety. Federal investigators are scrutinizing why an Air Canada flight attempted to land in August at the San Francisco Airport on a taxiway where four planes were waiting. If the pilots hadn’t noticed their mistake at the last moment, 59 feet off the ground, it could have resulted in the worst aviation accident in history.
“We’re never going to be 100% perfect, but we’re so close that all we can do is think about what the next safety issue is,” Young said. “We proactively try to find risks in system and mitigate those risks before we have an accident.”
Raj Shah, a White House spokesman, said Trump’s proposal during his first year in office to shift air-traffic control from the FAA to a private corporation run by industry stakeholders would improve safety.
The proposal remains a contentious subject in Congress, but advocates among airlines contend it would hasten improvements in air-traffic control and reduce flight disruptions.
Shah also cited Trump’s efforts to enhance aviation security through tighter screening under the Department of Homeland Security.
“President Trump has raise the bar for our nation’s aviation safety and security,” Shah said. “The president is pleased there were no commercial airline deaths in 2017, and hopes this remains consistent in 2018 and beyond.”
Beyond the U.S., aviation safety is improving worldwide through greater collaboration to reduce risks. The result was reflected in one fatal passenger flight for every 7.4 million flights worldwide, according to the Aviation Safety Network.
“In the first 80 years of commercial aviation, we saw lots of accidents, but we saw tremendous improvements in safety over time,” Young said. “It’s a global industry and we’re all embracing the safety technology and training that we all need.”