When Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed Saturday at the San Francisco airport, it was attempting a landing after an uneventful 10-hour flight from Seoul. All but two of the 16 crew members and 291 passengers survived the crash and the subsequent fire on the plane.
As aviation experts have pointed out, considering the impact, the extent of the damage to the plane and the number of passengers aboard, it could have been much worse than two deaths and more than 160 injured. That it wasn’t is due largely to safety regulations, training and standards of operation that have international and domestic air travel the safest mode of transportation per mile traveled. For example, a fatality analysis by the National Safety Council shows that between 1999 and 2008, the rate of death per 100 million passenger miles in the United States was highest for cars, 0.72. For airlines, the rate was 0.01.
It is far safer in the skies than on the highways. People are traveling by air in larger numbers and more frequently. An indirect measure of confidence, perhaps, air travelers seem to pay closer attention to their smart devices than to the mandatory preflight safety instructions.
Still, with crowded runways, larger and faster aircraft and more passengers in the air, casualties are likely to be heavy when accidents do occur, requiring thorough investigation of the unique circumstances of each incident.
Much still is unclear about what went wrong on Flight 214, whether it was by human, mechanical or other error that the tail of the jet hit the seawall on the approach to the runway. Spurred by findings from an air crash that killed 50 people near Buffalo, N.Y., in 2009, the Federal Aviation Administration has announced new certification rules that increase flight training time for co-pilots from 250 to 1,500 hours, the same as pilots. With focus again on potential pilot error, findings from this investigation should prove invaluable in identifying what further improvements need to be made, whether in refining operating procedures, in training pilots, flight and ground crews or tightening regulations.