A Colombian airliner chartered by a group of French vacationers crashed in a remote wooded region of Venezuela yesterday shortly after reporting engine problems, killing all 160 aboard. It was the fourth major foreign crash in two weeks.
The MD-82 was headed to the island of Martinique from Panama and was carrying many French civil servants who had chartered the plane from West Caribbean Airways, according to news reports. The airline was also involved in a crash in March that killed eight during takeoff from the Colombian island of Old Providence.
On Sunday, a Cypriot airliner crashed near Athens, killing all 121 aboard. On Aug. 6, a twin-engine plane operated by a Tunisian charter airline crash-landed in the sea off Sicily en route to Tunisia, killing 13. Four days before that, an Air France jet from Paris carrying 309 skidded off a runway in Toronto while landing in a thunderstorm and burst into flames. All survived.
The accidents have nothing in common, safety experts said. The recent spate of crashes may leave the impression that airline safety worldwide is eroding, but accident statistics show that safety is improving, the experts said. The worldwide accident rate is the lowest since 1945.
Worldwide, nine crashes occurred last year, killing 203 people, while 2 billion passengers flew on commercial flights, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization. The figures do not include charter flights.
So far this year, five major crashes have occurred, resulting in 308 deaths, according to a database survey of airplane crashes maintained by Aviation Safety Network. The crashes were in Afghanistan, Australia, Equatorial Guinea, Colombia and Greece and do not include chartered flights.
The United States has a historically low accident rate, and there has been no major fatal accident in more than three years. The most recent major fatal U.S. crash was in November 2001, when an American Airlines Airbus plane went down after taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport, killing 260 aboard and five on the ground.
"Anecdotally, when you talk about accident rates, it's pretty much a tie for first among United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan," said Les Dorr, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. "There's no long-term difference among those countries in the last 25 years."
The recent crashes will slightly increase this year's global accident rate, which is one accident per 1 million flights, but do not indicate a change in the downward trend, said Stuart Matthews, president of the Flight Safety Foundation. "On the assumption that we don't have a series that carry on, I don't think it will make a difference in the 10-year accident rate," he said.
The cause of yesterday's crash in Venezuela was not known. At the crash site near the border with Colombia, rescue workers found the plane's flight-data recorder, said Air Force Maj. Javier Perez, according to the Associated Press. He said the cockpit voice recorder had not been found, the AP reported.
As the plane developed problems just after 3 a.m., the Colombian pilot radioed a nearby airport in western Venezuela requesting permission for an emergency landing, saying both engines had failed, the AP reported. Within 10 minutes, the MD-82 fell into a steep descent and broke apart on impact, Venezuelan officials said.
Last year, the number of international air travelers returned to levels not reached since before the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001. That number is expected to increase 7.6 percent this year, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Rival planemakers Airbus SAS and Boeing Co. are introducing new aircraft and courting potential new customers in anticipation that worldwide air travel will increase at least 5 percent a year over the next 20 years.
This year, the Middle East is expected to lead the rest of the world in air travel with 11.6 percent growth as new and existing carriers establish large hubs and expand rapidly, particularly in the United Arab Emirates. The Emirates airline, for example, has ordered 40 of the new Airbus plane that will seat 555 passengers. Both manufacturers are getting orders from Asia, particularly from China, which has purchased planes from both manufacturers.
Safety experts said they are impressed by what they describe as more international cooperation in sharing safety information and by carrier-driven efforts to maintain a global safety standard. Safety consultants said that airline alliances that form code-share agreements, such as Sky Team and Star Alliance, audit each other's safety programs to ensure that new members adhere to the same safety standards as existing members. For example, the agreements have helped to push newer carriers in developing regions to tighten the training of flight and maintenance crews.
"The alliances do a very good job of auditing each other's airlines to make sure standards are met," said Terry McVenes, head of safety at the Air Line Pilots Association.
Researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.