No U.S. airline fatalities in 2010

Updated 14m ago
By Alan Levin, USA TODAY

U.S. airlines did not have a single fatality last year. It was the third time in the past four years there were no deaths, continuing a dramatic trend toward safer skies.

Years without deaths have occurred sporadically since the dawn of the jet age, but never have so many occurred in so short a period, according to an analysis of data from the National Transportation Safety Board. The average number of deaths fell from about 86 a year in the 1990s to 46 a year since 2000, a 46% drop.

Last year also marked the first time that there were no passenger fatalities on any airline based in developed nations, says Arnold Barnett, a professor who specializes in accident statistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management.

"In the entire First World, fatal crashes are at the brink of extinction," Barnett says.

Dozens of safety improvements that have gradually eliminated whole categories of crashes, says John Cox, a consultant who previously served as head of safety for a major pilots' union.

"The proof of those steps is results like this," Cox says.

Last year, U.S. carriers flew more than 10 million flights and hauled more than 700 million passengers, but only 14 people suffered serious injuries, according to the NTSB. There also were no major accidents, the most serious category under the NTSB's definitions.

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The last fatal accident occurred Feb. 12, 2009, when a Colgan Air Bombardier Q400 turboprop plunged into a neighborhood near Buffalo, killing 49 people on board and a man on the ground. That broke a 2 ½-year stretch of no deaths dating to Aug. 27, 2006, when a Comair regional jet tried to takeoff on a closed runway in Lexington, killing 49.

Although the NTSB data analysis is cause for celebration, it also highlights the remaining risks in the system. In some cases, there has been a fine line between a fatal accident and an incident with no injuries.

For example, a US Airways Express Bombardier regional jet narrowly avoided tragedy on Jan. 19, 2010, when its pilots bungled a takeoff and skidded off the runway. The airport is built on a plateau and the terrain plunges after the runway, but the jet was stopped by a bed of hard foam designed just for such emergencies.

Safety analysts, such as Cox and the Federal Aviation Administration, credit the improving safety record to scores of initiatives that have gone into place in recent decades. Among the most critical enhancements: technology that has nearly wiped out collisions with the ground and other aircraft, improved training and data collection that identifies hazards before they cause accidents.

Many of these improvements were done voluntarily through a decade-long cooperative effort between industry and the FAA, says Administrator Randy Babbitt.

"We have identified and eliminated many of the major risks in the system and we will continue to act on the remaining safety challenges and keep air travelers safe," Babbitt says. ... 0_ST_N.htm