Proponents of airline travel frequently remind fliers that taking to the sky is much safer than taking a drive along the highway.
Statistics from the Boeing Co. say that accident rates during the 1980s were 2.3 serious crashes per million commercial jetliner flights worldwide. The U.S. rate was even more impressive - one in nearly 2 million flights.However, airline officials continue to fear what some label as "the last frontier of aviation safety" - human error.
Human error has been to blame in a number of notable accidents - last month's jetliner slamming into a commuter plane on a Los Angeles runway; last December's lost-in-the-fog airliner in Detroit that taxied into a jet racing for takeoff; the 1989 aborted takeoff sending a plane off the runway and into New York's East River; and the 1988 botched takeoff forcing a jetliner to plow into a Denver runway during a snowstorm; and the 1983 crashing of a 747 jet into the hills near Madrid, Spain.
With the number of jetliner flights increasing faster than the declining rates of airliner accidents, Boeing officials predict the number of major jetliner crashes to reach 20 to 25 a year worldwide in the next decade - a jump of nearly 50 percent from the current rate as well as a projected accident once every two or three weeks by the year 2005.
While current accident rates are commendable, there is always room for improvement. Safety needs of the airline industry are threefold:
First, better trained pilots, crews and controllers. The New York incident involved what was described as a "confused and inexperienced" crew; the Denver accident was the result of a poorly skilled, young co-pilot; and the Los Angeles crash stemmed from a air traffic controller's mistaken directions.
Second, better technology and safety devices. The pilot of the 747 that crashed in Spain ignored the ground proximity alarm, thinking it was faulty. A history of false alarms with airliners' ground warning systems have left some safety experts not only skeptical of those devices but with new on-board collision avoidance radar, calling it "the latest technological gadget."
Third, improved confidence in and immediate response to any alarm system and warning monitors. As in the case of the Avianca accident in Spain, some crew members routinely ignore warnings. Others consider them so much a distraction that they have disabled the devices.
What is needed is quality equipment and consistent confidence in its operation and warnings. "Pilots have to believe that the warning is real, or it's useless - or worse,' said one safety official.
Better training, better devices, better confidence - it can result in reducing the role of human error in aviation accidents and saving thousands of lives.