Swissair Crash: Blemish On Good Safety Record

Officials see no sign of terrorism but have not pinpointed cause of the air tragedy.

As international investigators scour the cold waters off the coast of Nova Scotia, airline experts say the crash of Swissair Flight 111 late Wednesday was a tragic punctuation to what overall has been a good year for airline safety.

"In the United States, 1997 was a pretty good year, and this year seems to be equally good," says Stuart Matthews, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, in suburban Washington. "But the actual number of accidents on a worldwide level are around the same as we would anticipate - between 30 and 40."

The Swissair MD-11 took off from Kennedy International Airport Wednesday night bound for Geneva with no signs of trouble.

When the plane was about 42 miles from Halifax International Airport, the pilot reported smoke in the cockpit. He dumped fuel and attempted an emergency landing. The plane then disappeared from the radar screens and crashed into the Atlantic about six or seven miles off shore.

US officials say so far there is no indication that terrorism was involved. Ground crews at Kennedy have been on heightened alert since recent US airstrikes on suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan and the Sudan. Still, investigators yesterday began quizzing everyone who had contact with the jet before it took off.

If air-safety experts retrieve the Swissair's "black box," it may reveal clues about what happened to Flight 111. The small electronic device records crucial data while the plane is in flight, including the communications of the crew. Investigators are particularly interested in the reports of smoke in the cockpit.

"Much of the time that emanates from the cargo spaces, but that's not necessarily the case here," says Aaron Gellman of the transportation center at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. The most notable example of fire in the cargo hold was the May 1996 ValueJet crash, in which canisters of oxygen were improperly packaged and labeled.

And Mr. Gellman also cautions against jumping to any conclusions until more information is available. He notes that this was a rare accident at an airline with an "exemplary" safety record.

Indeed, the aviation-safety record in the US, Europe, and Japan continues to improve, even as the number of planes flying continues to grow dramatically.

In the US, about 14 million flights take off each year. On average, there are three to four major accidents.

"Every airline accident is almost an abnormal event," says Mr. Matthews. "And they're usually random events...: The last accident is not the same as this accident, and the next accident will be different again."

An August report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found there were 976 aviation fatalities in the US in 1997. Of those, 646 involved private planes and 236 involved foreign or unregistered carriers.

"So in all commercial aviation in the US, there were only 104 fatalities, and that compares with 42,000 deaths on the road," Matthews says.

MATTHEWS and other experts credit the increases in safety to a rigorous regulatory atmosphere, better designed aircraft with more advanced safety systems, and better training for pilots and crews.

"The level of risk is extraordinarily low, but the Swissair crash reminds us that of course, the risk is not zero," says Arnold Barnett, professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Most airline experts consider the MD-11, which was built by McDonnell Douglas, a very safe airplane. "This plane has never been questioned about safety," says Fred Klein, president of GRA Aviation Specialists, airline consultants in Herndon, Va.

However, there have been some minor problems with the MD-11s. According to NTSB records, there have been 20 incidents involving the wide-body jets. One of the most serious was the 1997 crash of a Federal Express cargo plane at Newark Airport. The same jet had been damaged in 1994 when it descended too quickly and its tail struck the runway during a hard landing in Anchorage, Alaska.

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