In 2018, airlines set another aviation record by flying almost 4.5 billion passengers on nearly 45 million flights across the globe.
Despite this remarkable feat, 2018 was only "an average year in terms of safety for airline travel" according to retired airline pilot and safety expert, John Cox. In reality, the use of the term "average" to describe air safety in 2018 can be considered far too kind. The Aviation Safety Network (ASN) stated that in 2018 there were 16 airliner accidents that killed a total of 555 people (as of December 27, 2018). That's well over a 900% increase over last year when just 59 people died in accidents. ASN described 2017 as "the safest year ever, both by the number of fatal accidents as well as in terms of fatalities”.
In 2018, plane crashes in Russia, Iran and Nepal killed 195 people in just one month, from February 11 to March 12. In the Iranian accident, the crash site (a 12,000-foot mountain) was not found for two days, yet Iranian officials reported there were no survivors of the 66 onboard before the aircraft was found. It is believed the plane was not able to de-ice its wings properly, but responsibility for the crash of the ageing ATR-72 turboprop, which had been out of service for 7 years, is still unclear. In another terrible accident, on May 18, 112 of 113 passengers and crew were killed when a Cubana de Aviación 737-200 crashed after takeoff from José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba. As with the other accidents, the cause has apparently not been officially determined; ASN classifies it as "loss of control" (presumed).
But in 2018, the spotlight was on two other accidents. Each is concerning, for different reasons.
One was the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 near Jakarta, Indonesia on October 29, killing all on board. The 189 fatalities, on a brand-new Boeing 737 MAX, made it the deadliest crash of the year and accounted for more than one-third of airline deaths in 2018. In a powerful interactive presentation, the New York Times shows how the pilots of Lion Air Flight 610 apparently got false readings from sensors, ended up fighting the automatic anti-stall systems, tried to control the plane’s stabilisers and bounced up and down two dozen times. Sadly, they lost the battle, and the plane plunged 5000 feet into the Java Sea. t least one lawsuit has been filed in the US against Boeing on behalf of a victim of the Lion Air crash, alleging the airplane was "unreasonably dangerous”.
The other notorious accident in 2018 was an engine failure and cowling separation on Southwest Flight 1380 near Philadelphia in April. A woman sitting in a window seat was fatally injured and almost sucked out of the aircraft. Eight other passengers were injured. However, Southwest Captain Tammie Jo Shults, one of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots, was able to land the depressurised 737 safely with a single working engine.
In February, a United Boeing 777 also had to make an emergency landing after losing the engine cowling on a flight from San Francisco to Honolulu. Amazingly, the plane landed safely at its destination just 20 minutes off-schedule.
In September, the captain of an Iberia Airbus A350 flying from New York to Madrid made an emergency landing in Boston after the in-flight shutdown of one of its Rolls-Royce engines. Issues with Rolls-Royce Trent engines took many Boeing 787 Dreamliners out of service for inspections during 2018, although the company insisted that the A350’s Trent XWB was based on a different architecture than the Trent 1000 in the 787.
Most recently, an Airbus A330 aircraft lost not one, but both engines in flight, but fortunately, not at the same time. According to Boarding Area, a Brussels Airlines A330-200 was flying from Kinshasa to Brussels on December 10 when the pilots received a warning from an electronic monitor that the port (left) engine had failed. They declared an emergency and descended to 27,000 feet, where the engine relit. The pilots were able to return to their 40,000 foot cruising altitude. The flight continued normally until the approach to Brussels. This time, the starboard (right) engine began to fail, relight and shut down while descending. It finally relighted as the aircraft landed. Investigators believe the rare dual-engine failure may have been caused by fuel contamination at Kinshasa airport.
It is very disturbing that with today's clearly safer aircraft, a nearly ten-fold increase in passenger deaths was witnessed in 2018. The aircraft industry, the airlines, and government regulators must work together to ensure this troubling trend does not continue into 2019.
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