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Updated Tuesday, February 12, 2013 at 11:36 AM

Fatal crashes a rarity as airline safety enters new era of caution

By CHRISTOPHER DREW and JAD MOUAWAD
The New York Times

Flying on a commercial jetliner has never been safer.

It will be four years Tuesday since the most recent fatal crash in the United States, a span unmatched since propeller planes gave way to the jet age more than half a century ago.

Worldwide, last year was the safest since 1945, with 23 deadly accidents and 475 fatalities, according to the Aviation Safety Network, an accident researcher. That was fewer than half the 1,147 deaths, in 42 crashes, in 2000.

Flying worldwide has become so reliable that a traveler could board a plane every day for 14,000 years without ever being in an accident, according to a calculation by the International Air Transport Association.

Planes and engines have become more reliable. Advanced navigation and warning technology has sharply reduced once-common accidents like midair collisions or crashes into mountains in poor visibility.

Regulators, pilots and airlines now share much more extensive information about flying hazards, with the goal of preventing accidents rather than just reacting to them. And when crashes do occur, passengers are now more likely to get out alive.

“The lessons of accidents used to be written in blood, where you had to have an accident, and you had to kill people to change procedures, or policy, or training,” said Deborah Hersman, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The grounding of the Boeing 787 fleet last month illustrates this new era of caution. The last time a fleet was grounded was 1979, after a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 crashed shortly after takeoff at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, killing 273 people.

The 787s, by contrast, were grounded after two episodes involving smoking batteries in which no one was hurt and no planes were lost.

The last fatal accident involving a commercial flight in the U.S. was Colgan Air Flight 3407, which crashed near Buffalo, N.Y., killing 50 people, on Feb. 12, 2009. The pilot did the opposite of what he was supposed to do when ice formed on the wings.

Since the crash, the Federal Aviation Administration has mandated longer resting periods for pilots.

Perhaps even more noteworthy, there has not been an accident involving a major domestic carrier since an American Airlines flight to the Dominican Republic crashed after takeoff in New York in November 2001, killing all 260 people on board.

Air traffic is set to grow in the next decade, and airports are more congested. Near-misses on runways and taxiways have risen.

And with 2 million U.S. passengers boarding more than 30,000 flights every day, maintaining that safety record will be a challenge.


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