Risks to airline passengers are changing

In calendar year 2015 worldwide airline accidents killed fewer passengers than they have ever done, but crashes caused by deliberate action confirms a rising risk to travellers that has its basis in global instability.

Last year there were nine fatal airline accidents in which a total of 176 people died. All of these fatal accidents involved small, propeller-driven aircraft , most of them carrying cargo only. There were no jet accidents.

There were also two jet disasters in 2015, but they were not accidents. One was the Germanwings crash in the French Alps, deliberately caused by the copilot in a bid for his own suicide and – perhaps – notoriety. He killed himself and the other 149 people on board. The second jet disaster was the sabotage of the Russian-bound MetroJet Airbus A321, in which all 224 people on board died. Evidence points to a bomb having been placed on board the aircraft at its departure airport, Sharm el-Sheikh.

So in 2015 more than twice as many passengers and crew – 374 – were killed on airliners by deliberate action compared with the number killed in genuine accidents.

In 2014 there were two such events resulting in 510 deaths. Malaysia Airlines flight MH370’s disappearance is believed (though not yet proven) to have been the result of deliberate action by someone on board, and then there was the missile shoot-down of MH17 over eastern Ukraine.

The indications are that the most significant future risk to airline passengers is now shifting away from accidents and toward security threats.

MH17 and the denial option

The Dutch-led international inquiry into the MH17 shootdown has clearly anticipated the organised denial that would follow its publication.

This is evident from the extraordinarily degree of thoroughness in its forensic examination of the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777.

The inquiry was far more thorough than would have been required simply to confirm that an unidentified missile brought the aircraft down.

But as far as Russia and the eastern Ukrainian rebels are concerned this careful work is irrelevant. They can claim truthfully – although not with honest intent – that the wreckage was not secured, and that it could have been tampered with.

That makes them untouchable in law unless even more detailed evidence is uncovered that proves precisely where the missile was launched from.

Actually, there is a chance that evidence may be found.

But even if it’s not, the care to which the Dutch-led investigation has gone to identify the precise physical damage to the aircraft and chemical traces on the airframe is such that the report has real credibility: it makes clear that a Russian-built Buk missile did to the Malaysia 777 and its passengers and crew what Buk missiles are supposed to do.

The consequence of this report’s credibility is that the credibility of the deniers will be fatally damaged in the eyes of the global community as a whole.

So what else has the world learned as a result of MH17?

The day that MH17 happened the world’s airlines learned that intelligence about the safety of high level airspace is not guaranteed. Ukraine had closed its airspace below 32,000ft in the belief the rebels only had limited-performance weaponry. They were wrong.

ICAO has since set up a system for improving the communication of intelligence about conflict zones to airlines. But they could be wrong too.

So should airlines, from now on, avoid airspace over a zone in which – it is believed – small arms only are being used?…on the grounds that they might be misinformed about that too.

No easy answers here.