From The Middle Seat Terminal (WSJ)

Posted by Scott McCartney

Last year was the second-best on record for air safety, with a 25% decline in the number of fatalities from aircraft accidents, according to statistics from London-based Ascend, an aerospace data and consulting firm.

In 2008, Ascend counted 539 passenger and crew fatalities worldwide, an improvement on the 730 fatalities recorded in 2007. Only 2004 recorded fewer fatalities at 434. However, 2008 also saw 28 fatal air accidents in total compared to only 24 in 2007.

The fatal accident rate for 2008 of one per 1.3 million flights was better than the overall rate for the nine years since 2000 of one per 1.2 million flights. The year also compared favorably with those of the 1990s, which recorded an average of 37.4 fatal accidents per year. In that decade, an average of 1,128 people died each year – more than twice the number in 2008.

“These are very reassuring statistics,” says Paul Hayes, director of Ascend. “Although there were more fatal accidents this year than last, far fewer people died. The chances of dying in a serious air accident have reduced significantly and overall, passenger safety has improved.’’

The worst accident of 2008 was the Spanair MD-80 crash in August, which killed 149 of the 166 passengers on board and five of six crew when it crashed beside the runway at Madrid Barajas Airport. Only two other accidents killed more than 50 people; the Aeroflot Nord (Boeing 737) and Itek Air (Boeing 737) crashes resulted in 82 and 65 deaths respectively.

One trend worth highlighting: planes have become more survivable in crashes. Government mandates requiring stronger aircraft seats and cabin materials that burn slower — and only at much higher temperatures — have allowed more people to escape aircraft cabins. We saw it in Toronto when a wide-body Air France jet went off a runway and everyone escaped before fire burned the cabin. And again in Denver recently passengers escaped a Continental Airlines Boeing 737 that went off the runway and burned on the right side.

Yesterday the NTSB’s latest report on that accident noted that “there was no obvious damage to the passenger seats, which were found secured on their tracks. The safety belts all appeared intact although some showed evidence of fire damage.” In addition, the NTSB said flight attendants reported that there were no problems with escape slides and emergency exit lights were brightly illuminated. “All occupants exited the airplane via the left side doors and overwing exits. The flight attendants reported that the passenger who opened the overwing exit did so very quickly and easily. After a bottleneck of people developed by the left overwing exit, a Continental Airlines pilot, who was a passenger on the flight, directed passengers out via the doors.”

At the time of the accident, passengers reported that very hot plastic from overhead bins dripped on them. But with older aircraft materials, those bins might have burned, releasing noxious fumes. The Continental accident highlights how safety changes over the past decade or two are paying dividends by saving lives.