Does Libyan Plane Crash Indicate a Disturbing Trend?

An Afriquyah Airways (Libya’s state-owned airline) Airbus 330 crashed in Tripoli, Libya earlier today, killing 103 of the 104 people on board. The plane landed short of the runway and exploded on impact. The cause of the crash hasn’t been determined, but a technical defect is suspected.

A Dutch boy believed to be 10 years old is the only survivor. (Oddly enough, a 14-year-old girl was the only survivor on a 152-fatality A310 crash last year in the Comoros Islands.)

The Airbus 330 involved was less than 1 year old. It is the second A330-200 to be involved in a fatal crash during the past year. Last June, 228 people died in the Air France Flight 447 crash in the same model of plane.

Does Airbus have a flawed product on its hands? In 2007, the company did recommend that airlines change the pitot probes, which measure a plane’s airspeed, in A320 aircraft. The pitot probes were malfunctioning. Aerospace reporter Aubrey Cohen describes what happened next:

Just because Airbus recommends something to operators doesn’t mean that airlines have to comply. When flight safety is jeopardy, aviation authorities get involved and issue airworthiness directives, which makes changes mandatory. Airbus’ recommendation was not an airworthiness directive, and the recommendation did not involve A330s, which is the type of plane that crashed.

Starting in May 2008, Air France began noticing that airspeed data were becoming lost in flights on A340s and A330s that were in cruise phase. The airline notified Airbus, which determined that the airspeed loss was caused by icing of the pitot probes, the airline has said.

On April 27, Air France began replacing all of its probes with a new version that did not have high-altitude airspeed discrepancies because of icing. Following the crash of Flight 447, Air France has sped up its program to replace the probes, though the company says that nothing should be inferred from that

It could be that many airlines are shirking unnecessary maintenance in order to cut costs. According to The Economist, accidents resulting in “hull loss,” or the destruction of the plane, have risen since 2006:

…serious accidents that result in the destruction of a plane have fallen steadily for decades, but have been on the rise again since 2006. But the increase in accidents has not resulted in a growing number of fatalities. Some 692 passengers lost their lives in 2007, but this fell to 502 last year, a rate of 0.13 deaths for every million passengers carried.

It’s strange to see that the number of accidents involving the loss of a Western-built plane has actually risen in percentage terms over the last two years, after diminishing for the previous seven. Why might this be?

IATA says that “a total of 30% of all accidents in 2008 noted deficient safety management at the airline level as a contributing factor”, but does not suggest that safety management has got worse in recent years.

Only two years of data aren’t enough to indicate a trend, according to The Economist. During 2008-10, however, a number of A320, 330s, and Boeing 737-747 crashes were due to technical problems. There were also a disconcerting number of fatal crashes.

Could the global recession have affected airlines enough that fatal, preventable crashes have increased? I’d like to see The Economist run those statistics again.

Written by Drea Knufken

Drea Knufken

Currently, I create and execute content- and PR strategies for clients, including thought leadership and messaging. I also ghostwrite and produce press releases, white papers, case studies and other collateral.