In our opinion: Aviation safety is up, tragedies are becoming more rare

Published: Wednesday, July 10 2013 1:47 p.m. MDT

People look at the wreckage of Asiana Flight 214 where it crashed at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, Saturday, July 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Bay Area News Group, LiPo Ching)

LiPo Ching, ASSOCIATED PRESS

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board may take a year or more before it decides what led to the crash of an Asiana Boeing 777 over the weekend as it attempted to land in San Francisco.

But, while family and friends of the two fatalities associated with this crash mourn and many more struggle to recover from serious injuries, it is important for the flying public to contemplate how rare such tragedies have become. Saturday's accident was the first fatal commercial air crash in the United States in four years.

By an unfortunate coincidence, it was followed Sunday by the crash of an air taxi in Alaska, operated by Rediske Air. Ten people were reported dead in that crash.

But news like this has become even more jarring by its rarity. Air travel is a routine part of life in the United States, with the most dreaded part tending to be the security check before being allowed to proceed to the plane.

By comparison, if statistical averages hold true, more than 150 people would have died in automobile accidents nationwide last weekend. But even that figure is significantly lower than in the past — an indication that travel of all kinds is safer now than at any time in modern memory, terrorism notwithstanding.

Last year, the Associated Press published an analysis of government records that determined the decade between 2002 and 2011 was the safest in U.S. aviation history, with only 153 deaths recorded. The previous decade had been the safest up to that time, but the risk of death was 10 times higher. During the first decade of the jet age, 1962-1971, 1,696 people died from commercial air crashes.

A quick scan of fatal accidents from the late 1940s through the 1950s reveals how common aviation mishaps once were. Significantly, officials reacted to these accidents by learning from them and instituting new measures, leading to today's safer travel.

One example: On June 30, 1956, two airliners collided over the Grand Canyon, killing 128 people. As a result, the government created the Federal Aviation Administration, which ruled that all commercial flights must operate under instrument controls rather than relying solely on eyesight, regardless of the weather. The rule effectively put an end to sightseeing excursions through the Grand Canyon and near other landmarks during transcontinental flights.

Another example: After the crash of a Delta Airlines flight during a thunderstorm in Dallas on August 2, 1985, the FAA mandated that all commercial jets be equipped with warning devices that can detect potentially deadly wind shear conditions.

Unfortunately, flying is not as safe in other countries, particularly Russia and some nations in Africa. Air safety in the United States is a triumph of government regulation and private enterprise, which have built a system vital to the nation's economy.

None of that is comfort to the victims of the Asiana flight that crashed Saturday. They will need love and support as they deal with the life-shattering aftermath of an unexpected disaster.

The aviation industry, however, is bound to do what it typically has done in these situations — learn and move forward more safely.

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