Crashes stir concern, but corporate jets generally safe

Tragedy strikes Ebersol family, but small jets parallel fatality rate for big planes.

Despite the recent media frenzy over the high-profile crashes of small corporate jets, flying continues to be one of the safest modes of transportation available in America - other than maybe walking. And that goes for small corporate jets as well as the large commercial airlines. Small puddle-jumping charters are a bit more dicey, but their safety record has continued to improve as well. In the past 50 years, the accident rate for civil aviation has dropped by 87 percent.

But whenever high-profile people are involved in an aviation fatality, such statistics can get lost in the media's sometimes breathless coverage, particularly when a series of crashes comes one on the heels of the other. Witness the past three weeks.

First, a corporate Gulfstream on its way to pick up former President George H. W. Bush crashed in Houston killing all three aboard. Then a Canadair Challenger carrying NBC Sports executive Dick Ebersol and his family crashed on a runway in a resort town in Colorado. Mr. Ebersol's 14-year old son and the crew were killed. A few days later, a small charter Hansa jet crashed into an island in the Missouri River, killing the CEO of the company and his co-pilot.

Despite the tragedies, aviation experts contend there is no indication that flying in small corporate jets is any more dangerous than before. "This historically has been regarded as a very safe segment of the industry, and I don't know anyone who is raising, even informally, red flags," says Clint Oster, an aviation expert at Indiana University at Bloomington. "There's just no indication that we're seeing a deterioration of safety in the industry."

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) which track aviation accidents break them into a few broad categories that make it difficult to distinguish corporate-jet accidents from those of small single-engine charters that bring hunters into the frozen wilds of Alaska. But independent consultants, Robert E. Breiling Associates, hired by the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) have concluded the fatal accident rate for the professional jets is .014 per 100,000 hours, which is very similar to the fatal accident rate for commercial airlines (.012 per 100,000 hours).

"For the corporate jets, over the past five years there's been an average of nine accidents a year and four fatalities, this year there have been 11 accidents so far and five fatalities," says Mr. Breiling. "So it's not out of line from the average."

Aviation experts point to a variety of factors to explain the increasing levels of aviation safety, from better and increased training of pilots to new technologies that make navigating much safer. Indeed, whenever there's an accident the NTSB spends months analyzing the chain of events that led to it. "That information is then used to improve training as well as the design of aircraft," says Ed Bolen, president of the NBAA. Overall, about 70 percent of the flights in the country are private, general-aviation flights that carry an estimated 145 million people.

"There's a very low accident record and a very strong safety record," says Jeff Myers, of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association in Frederick, Md. "Will it ever be perfect? We're working toward it."

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