How Many Planes Crash a Year?
“How many planes crash a year?”—this must be a question everyone has wondered at least once in a lifetime. Air crashes, and especially if it is a passenger aircraft, almost always make the headlines. Although aviation is the safest form of long distance transport, fatality of a plane crash can make some people refrain from flying. Especially soon after an air accident—a recent tragedy must be MU5735 on 21st March 2022—one would feel insecure about travelling by air.
I have worked as a flight crew for a couple of airlines. And I can tell you: aviation safety training is full-on. From extinguishing real fire to sliding off from a mock plane to water, safety drill is the main in crew training. Not only the ability to act promptly, but also the complete knowledge of safety measures are required to be a fully-qualified airline crew. Airline crews are more of a safety officer than a hospitality worker. Why? That’s because safety is airlines’ highest priority!
However, despite airlines’ effort to diminish airplane incidents and fatal accidents, air crashes still happen. The infographic above visualizes how many planes crash a year from 1970 to present not to scare you, but to prove airlines’ efforts.
Gradual Improvements in Air Safety
From 1970 to 2021, the 1970s was the deadliest decade with 3,133 plane crashes and 24,512 deaths. On the other hand, the 2010s has seen a great improvements in the number of both crashes and fatalities. In comparison to the 1970s, the number of crashes dropped by about 59% and fatality dropped by 67% in the 2010s. The sharp drop in 2020 and 2021, however, would be due to the decline in global air travel as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although air travel has become increasingly safer in recent decades, it is important to learn from past air crashes. By learning from the past accidents, airlines ensure the same kind of accidents will never happen again. In fact, aviation authorities around the world often review and improve flight procedures after fatal accidents. Below, we will look through the deadliest accident in aviation history and its legacy.
The Deadliest in History: Tenerife Airport Disaster, 1977
Among the air crash in the 70s was the deadliest accident in aviation history, Tenerife airport disaster. The disaster took place in the middle of the Spanish transition to democracy in the 70s. On March 27th 1977, two Jumbo Jets B747 collided on the foggy runway in Los Rodeos Airport in Canary Islands, Spain.
The collision resulted in 583 fatalities. Unfortunately, no one survived in the KLM Flight 4805. On the other hand, 61 survived in the Pan Am Flight 1736, including the captain, the first officer and the flight engineer.
Underlying Conditions for the Tragedy
Both KLM Flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736 were originally scheduled to arrive at another airport in Spain, Gran Canaria Airport. However, they were diverted to Los Rodeos Airport because of a terrorist incident at the original destination by separatist Canary Islands Independence Movement, and so were many others. Los Rodeos Airport was a regional airport with only one runway and taxiway. The airport was unusually busy. Furthermore, thick fog covered the airfield on that specific day.
The KLM captain was probably under pressure to meet duty-time limit for crew members. So he decided to fully fuel the aircraft while they wait for departure clearance. The KLM aircraft blocked the runway for Pan Am Jumbo to reach the runway in the narrow airport.
After 35 minutes, the controller gave the Jumbos instructions: for the KLM to taxi down the runway to make a U-turn at the end of the runway and wait for air traffic control clearance; for the Pan Am to follow the KLM down the same runway to take the third exit. However, the instructions remained unclear for both parties mainly because of ambiguous communication and signal interference as well as poor visibility. Did controller cleared the KLM for takeoff? Or the controller told the KLM to wait for takeoff clearance? Which exit did the Pan Am have to take? Third from which point?
Worst of all, no one really questioned or doublechecked the instructions. This was partly because of hierarchical relations among crew members. This hierarchy used to be more common in airlines in those days as many crew members were from army which is an absolute hierarchical organization.
Collision: “Get off, Get off, Get off!” “Come on, Come on, Come on!”
Conditions were enough to lead to a fatal accident; thick fog, airport congestion, interference in signal transmissions, miscommunication, hierarchical relations, possibly time pressure and the full tank.
At 5:06:45” PM, the Pan Am voice recorder captured its captain saying, “There he is! Goddamn, that son-of-a-b**** is coming! Get off, get off, get off!” The captain was making a sharp turn to save the aircraft. The KLM voice recorder captured its captain’s words at 5:06:48” PM, “Come on, come on, come on,” in the desperate attempt to avoid the Pan Am by liftoff. However, at 5:06:50” PM, the two collided.
The KLM left-side engines, lower fuselage, and main landing gear hit the upper right side of the Pan Nam fuselage. The impact destroyed the planes at engines—immediately after the crash, they caught fire and the full fuel tank turned them into fireball.
All 248 passengers and crew on the KLM lost their lives. The crash and explosion also claimed 335 lives abord the Pan Am. 61 passengers and crew saved their lives, who mostly walked out from the left wing that was away from the impact.
Legacy: How Airlines Reacted and Revised
Aviation authorities revised airline regulations extensively following the tragedy. For example, they introduced standard phrases in air traffic instructions and replies. Lack of mutual understanding played a crucial role in the disaster; now showing mutual understanding has become indispensable by readback of instruction. And crew and controller no longer reply to instruction using colloquial phrases such as “OK” and “Roger” (the rule says). Moreover, authorities put more emphasis on English proficiency as a common working language.
Additionally, the Yes Sir culture in cockpit was revised. The new training encouraged younger pilots to take issues with the captain’s decision if they believed the decision to be incorrect. It also instructed captains to listen to the crew and evaluate the decision in view of the crew. These procedures grew to be Crew Resource Management (CRM) in later years. CRM is a set of aviation training procedures to improve teamwork within crew members in order to reduce human error that can lead to accidents.
Air Travel Has Become Safer and Safer
With all the efforts of airline staff, aviation authorities, crew, engineers, and passengers, travelling by air is much safer in these days. Not only passenger flight accidents, but also fighter jets accidents have declined. According to IATA’s Safety Report 2020, a person would have to travel every day for 20,932 years to experience a 100% fatal accident. The IATA member airlines’ accident rate was 0.83 per million flights. In comparison, the lifetime odds of dying for motor vehicle crash in the US between 2015 to 2019 was 1 in 107.
Summing up the answer to “How many planes crash a year?”—in the recent five years, approximately 103 planes crash a year, claiming about 570 lives. Having said that, the safety of air travel has improved significantly over the last five decades. Once again, that is because safety is airlines’ highest priority.