In what may be the world's worst year for air disasters in a decade, aviation officials are scrambling to improve international systems for information-sharing to help prevent accidents.
The efforts, led in part by the US government and aviation industry, are intensifying in the wake of recent crashes around the globe, including this week's tragic midair collision in India. Officials are also stirred by new projections showing that, as the number of flights increase worldwide, the accident rate will also climb.
"The rate has been flat for some time," says Russ Young, spokesman for Seattle-based Boeing Company "Everyone's concern, of course, is that it is a rate per million. As numbers of departures grow, numbers of accidents even at a flat rate will go up."
The aircraft manufacturer has crunched the numbers and come up with a dismaying prediction: Within 10 years, one major aviation accident will occur every week. The accident rate has remained the same - about 1.8 mishaps per 1 million departures - for several years. But the rate is likely to increase, Boeing says, as the number of departures steadily increases around the world.
Indeed, 1996 has not been a good year. The average number of fatalities for the past 10 years has hovered at about 560 per year. Between the collision over India and the July crash of TWA Flight 800 off New York, 579 people were killed. In addition, a Peruvian jet crashed in early October, killing all 170 on board. A Nigerian airliner crashed Nov. 7, killing 141. And the May ValuJet crash in Florida claimed 110 lives.
Everyone in the industry, says Mr. Young, uses the same word to describe the possibility of Boeing's predictions proving true: "unacceptable."
Al Prest, vice president of operations for the Washington-based Air Transport Association, the trade group that represents major carriers in the United States, agrees. "With hard work, we can prove [Boeing] wrong, and we have every intention of doing that."
THE US has a much lower accident rate than much of the rest of the world - particularly third-world countries. But as more people board international flights, it is becoming more imperative to examine the global aviation system, Mr. Prest says.
"This industry didn't get 99 percent safe just doing work after an accident. We got here because we are being proactive and doing the best we can everyday," Prest says. "When an accident occurs, it's a setback. We grieve with the families. But we also realize we have a job to do and pick up the pieces and try to learn from whatever went wrong. Historically, the system has gotten a little bit better after each accident."
One of the improvements at the forefront of the effort to improve safety is something called a Global Analysis and Information Network, which has the backing of the US Federal Aviation Administration and the industry. Airlines would download information from computers on their flights and analyze it for any irregularities.
Although the network is still in the discussion stages, it would create a large computer system containing information and analyses that could be beneficial to other airlines. Prest says three US carriers have agreed to begin collecting and analyzing data now.
British Airways, which has not had a serious accident in more than 10 years, has been using a similar system for the past six years. Known as BASES, the system tracks every incident and event recorded on flight data recorders on the company's planes. (British Airways' enhanced flight data recorders make note of about 150 parameters, compared with about 17 on US carriers). Then it analyzes risk to help the carrier determine where to concentrate its resources.
Capt. Roger Whitefield, chief air safety investigator for British Air, says the system is extremely valuable and alerts the carrier to potential problems. He cites two recent examples. In the first, computer analysis alerted British Air that its planes landing in Madrid experienced serious undercarriage wear. An investigation showed the wear was caused by a large bump in the runway there, which is being fixed.
Second, British Air's flight data recorders indicated a "bit of trouble in San Francisco with high-descent approaches." Mr. Whitefield says the company had begun flying newer airplanes in there that "didn't slow up as quickly as old ones," so British Air worked with San Francisco airport authorities to modify its approach path.
Here in the US, lessons learned from midair collisions, like the one this week near New Delhi, have prompted safety improvements like the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). It was developed after a small plane collided with an Aeromxico jet in 1986, killing 82 people in California.
TCAS is a form of radar in the cockpit that backs up air traffic control systems at airports. If the sophisticated circuitry detects a possible problem, it gives an oral command to the pilot to climb or descend.
All American airplanes have been required to use the technology since 1994, as are all foreign carriers that fly to the US. It is believed that the planes that collided in India were not equipped with this system.