Number of deaths in plane crashes doubles

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The Independent Online

The number of people killed in air crashes doubled last year to a seven-year high, according to the latest figures. The toll of fatal accidents rose by six to 34, but the number of passengers and crew who perished leapt from 466 to 1,050.

One of the main causes of deaths was "controlled flight into terrain" where an aircraft hits the ground at full power with the crew seemingly unaware of the danger. Another major cause is where there is a loss of control of the plane for whatever reason. Until 2004 the figure for fatal accidents had shown a consistent decline.

David Learmount, a safety specialist, points out in the latest edition of Flight magazine that many of the fatal accidents last year involved aircraft registered in states with "struggling economies" where regulatory activity was low on the list of political priorities.

For the last two decades, airlines in Africa and in parts of Latin America and Asia were responsible for a small percentage of flights, but most serious accidents. Mr Learmount says there was a "continuing absence" of fatal accidents involving major world airlines and up-to-date aircraft.

Nigeria had two fatal crashes last year in which a total of 225 people were killed, while Sudan saw three fatal accidents, all involving old Soviet-built aircraft. A West Caribbean Airways crash in Venezuela in August claimed the lives of 152 passengers and eight crew.

While most fatal crashes involved older aircraft, the disaster in the hills north of Athens last August in which 115 passengers and crew died, happened to a more modern jet. According to early reports from the investigator, the flight crew failed to set the pressurisation controls correctly during pre-flight checks. That mistake was made worse when the crew did not respond to warnings that the cabin was not pressurised as the Helios Boeing 737-300 aircraft climbed.

The chief investigator will point out that crews of other 737-700s have failed to pressurise the aircraft, although crew recognised the warnings in time, according to Flight magazine.

Two of the latest generation of aircraft operated by major carriers suffered serious runway over-runs last year because of "marginal" weather conditions and tail winds. An Air France Airbus A340 landing at Toronto Pearson airport was destroyed by fire after overrunning the landing strip and diving into a ravine. All passengers and crew escaped with their lives.

In a second incident, a Southwest airlines Boeing 737-700 overshot the runway at Chicago Midway, crashed through a fence and killed a child in a passing car. Passengers and crew were unhurt.

Airline safety reached a high in the first half of 2001, with 114 people killed in 13 accidents and not one crash involving a major airline.