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22 October 2008

Complacency and the Qantas A330 Accident of 7 October 2008

The accident earlier this month involving a Qantas Airbus A330 on a flight from Singapore to Perth seriously injured several passengers, but didn't result in any fatalities. While the event drew substantial news media attention in Australia and Asia, there was very little mention of it by major US media. This is very likely another example of how when it comes to airline events, it's difficult to get the attention of the US public, or of the policy makers in the US, if no one is killed.

My belief was that there would have been more media attention in the US if there had been at least one recent fatal event involving a US airline. While researching recent fatal US events, I found that the most recent passenger fatality on a US airliner was in August 2006. Looking back further, I realized that the US airline industry had quietly passed a milestone. The 26-month period between the last fatal US event and the date of this recording on October 21st, 2008 is the longest period without a passenger fatality on a US airliner since airlines in the US first began using jet aircraft in 1958.

One could argue that there's a certain amount of public complacency about airline safety when there are no major accidents. Looking through my archives, I found that this wasn't the first time I'd dealt with this subject. In late May 2004, the US airline industry was in the midst of another fatality-free period. At the time, it had been nearly 17 months since the last fatal US airline event. That month, I was interviewed as part of a National Public Radio program on airline safety that discussed some of the reasons for that absence of fatal events.

In the following segment, you'll hear my interview with Mike Pesca of NPR about some of the reasons behind the reduction of accidents. Also interviewed was David Evans of the publication Air Safety Week, who talked about how accidents drive the regulatory process.

Five months after the show aired, a regional airliner crashed in Missouri, killing both crew members and 11 of the 13 passengers, bringing to an end a 21-month period with no US passenger fatalities. Currently, the US airline industry has gone 26 months without a passenger fatality. This current fatality-free period is a sign that in spite of all the problems faced the industry, that the risk faced by passengers continues to decline.

Although this record is a positive sign for the industry, the recent Qantas event demonstrated that no airline, even one with no passenger fatalities in its history, is immune from accidents.

I'd like to remind the audience that however good the system may be, there's always room for improvement. One way to improve things is to learn from those rare events such as what happened with Qantas earlier this month. will continue to follow the accident investigation, and any future podcasts about the event, or news from the investigation, will be available at

You can hear the associated podcast, which includes my interview with NPR, at:

1 comment:

  1. According to NTSB, injuries caused by turbulence happen fairly frequently. I wonder why keeping one's seatbelt fastened while seated is merely a suggestion, instead of a rule. I suppose the problem is how to indicate when it's okay to go to the lavatory (or whatever) without turning off the seatbelt sign. If it were me, I'd keep the sign on all the time, insist on the flight attendents enforcing it, and simply announce when it's okay (or not) to get up. Injuries caused by turbulence occur not only to those who are not buckled in, but also to those who are. They can be struck by a person or an object being thrown about the cabin.