Aviation deaths increase in 2020 even as fatal incidents, flights fall

Three crashes made up most of the aviation deaths in 2020. This included the Air India Express crash in August

Aviation deaths increase in 2020 even as fatal incidents, flights fall
Air India Express Flight 1344 after the crash. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Nandishwaran.g.1910151

Industries across the world saw their own share of difficulties in 2020, owing to the Covid-19 pandemic that took more than 18,27,000 lives globally. One of the most adversely impacted sectors worldwide has been aviation due to travel restrictions and a slump in demand among travellers. According to a recent report by the Dutch aviation consulting firm To70, the number of people killed in large commercial aeroplane crashes rose in 2020 to 299 worldwide, even as the number of crashes fell by more than 50%.

There were 40 accidents involving large commercial passenger planes, five of which were fatal, resulting in 299 deaths in 2020. In 2019, there were 86 accidents, eight of which were fatal, resulting in 257 fatalities, according to the report.

Large commercial aeroplanes had 0.27 fatal accidents per million flights in 2020 or one fatal crash every 3.7 million flights, up from 0.18 fatal accidents per million flights in 2019, according to To70.

The decline in crashes came amid a sharp decline in flights due to the coronavirus pandemic. Flightradar24 reported commercial flights it tracked worldwide in 2020 fell 42% to 24.4 million.

Three crashes made up most of the aviation deaths in 2020. 

Ukrainian plane shot down

More than half of all deaths in the To70 review were the 176 people killed on January 8, 2020, when a Ukrainian plane was shot down in Iranian airspace.

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The Boeing 737-800 operated by the Ukraine International Airlines was on its way from Tehran to Kyiv and was shot down by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) shortly after takeoff from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport. 

Wreckage of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/mehrnews.com

Iran's military announced that it had brought down the plane by accident, mistaking it for a cruise missile after the plane took a sharp turn towards a sensitive military base, according to reports in The New York Times and IFP News.

The decision to shoot down the plane was taken after the pilots of the plane could not be contacted. This came amid heightened tensions between Iran and the US, with a US drone strike killing top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani after the US embassy in Baghdad was attacked. Iran had conducted missile strikes against US forces in Iraq in retaliation to Soleimani's killing.      

Pakistan air crash

The second deadliest incident was the May crash of a Pakistan airliner that killed 98 people. The Airbus A320 operated by Pakistan International Airlines en route from Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore to Jinnah International Airport in Karachi came down on houses in a densely-populated area in Karachi on May 22. 

Wreckage of the PIA plane that crashed in Karachi. Image courtesy: Twitter/@Official_PIA

Initial findings said that the pilots had failed to deploy the landing gear properly, as a result of which, the plane scraped the runway before taking off again, BBC reported. The air traffic controllers also did not alert the pilots about the engines being badly damaged. Pakistan's aviation minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan also said that the pilots were distracted while discussion the coronavirus. 

Air India Express Flight 1344

The Air India Express plane, a Boeing 737 flying from Dubai International Airport to Calicut International Airport on the Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) repatriation duty, suffered a runway excursion upon landing. 

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The pilots had already aborted two landing attempts because of heavy rain and tailwind. On the third attempt, the plane touched down, but skidded off the edge of the tabletop runway and fell into a 50 feet valley. The aircraft broke into two pieces as a result of the crash.

The Air India Express plane involved in the accident. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Konstantin von Wedelstaedt/airliners.net

A tabletop runway is located on top of a plateau or hillock with one of both ends adjacent to a steep precipice which drops into a deep valley. These runways create an optical illusion of being at the same level as the plains below and are a real challenge for pilots.  

Both pilots and 19 passengers of the ill-fated flight were killed in the accident that took place on August 7.

This was India's biggest air disaster since 2010 when an Air India Express plane and a tabletop runway were involved as well. The plane fell off a cliff in Mangalore on May 22, 2010 and caught fire, killing 158 of the 166 people on board.

Fall in aviation deaths

Over the past two decades, aviation deaths have been falling dramatically. As recently as 2005, there were 1,015 deaths aboard commercial passenger flights worldwide, the Aviation Safety Network (ASN) said.

Over the past five years, there has been an average of 14 fatal accidents for commercial passenger and cargo planes resulting in 345 deaths annually, ASN pointed out.

In 2017, aviation had its safest year on record worldwide with only two fatal accidents involving regional turboprops that resulted in 13 deaths and no fatal crashes of passenger jets.

The US has not had a fatal passenger airline crash since February 2009. There has been just one fatality due to a US passenger airline accident in that period.

(Cover image courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Nandishwaran.g.1910151)