Fatal Airplane Crashes Drop 65 Percent

In 1996, after the TWA Flight 800 disaster off Long Island, N.Y., and the ValuJet crash in the Florida Everglades--which together killed 375 people--then-DOT secretary Federico F. Pena convened a "safety summit" calling for a goal of zero aviation accidents. In 1997, a national commission on aviation safety and security, led by Vice President Al Gore, concluded that a more realistic goal would be to cut the rate of fatal accidents by 80 percent over the next 10 years. That timetable ended Sunday. As a whole, the industry came close but fell short.

As September 2007 ended, the drop in the fatal accident rate from September 1997 was about 65 percent. There have been no fatal airliner crashes involving scheduled flights this year in the United States, but worldwide there have been seven crashes this year that killed more than 20 people each. Still, according to the Alexandria, Va.-based Flight Safety Foundation, progress throughout the industry continues. In 1997, there was one fatal accident in about 2 million departures; now, there's one in about 4.5 million departures. Better equipment, air traffic procedures, and identification of potential problems are among the reasons for the improvement.

"This is the golden age of safety, the safest period, in the safest mode, in the history of the world," said FAA administrator Marion C. Blakey, in a speech to an aviation group in Washington on Sept. 11, two days before her five-year term ended.

The FAA notes that as air traffic steadily thickens, safety challenges continue to rise. National Transportation Safety Board statistics show that, despite the notable improvements in the past decade, airports lately have recorded a disturbing number of "proximity events," in which a plane lands on a runway already occupied by another because someone made a wrong turn or a controller made an error. Meanwhile, the number of flights is increasing, and airports are getting busier.

Such concerns will be on the agenda at the 60th annual International Air Safety Seminar that begins today in Seoul, Korea, continuing until Oct. 4. The event, a joint meeting of the Flight Safety Foundation, International Federation of Airworthiness, and International Air Transport Association, draws as many as 600 representatives from 50 or more countries. The theme for this year's event is Sharing Global Safety Knowledge.

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