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FAA says air travel safer across state
STATS: Number of crashes declines, but death toll, at 29, is up.
By RACHEL D'ORO
The Associated Press
(Published: November 19, 2003)
Air travel in Alaska is getting safer, according to the latest statistics released by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Private and commercial planes were involved in a total of 106 accidents between January and October, the lowest number for the same period in more than a decade.
"We're hoping to continue that way for the rest of the year," said Joette Storm, FAA spokeswoman in Anchorage.
FAA officials credit increasingly intensive safety programs launched since the early 1980s. At that time, commercial air carriers alone accounted for an annual average of 62 accidents. Now the five-year average is 32, according to FAA figures released in an October accident review.
So far this year, commercial air carriers have logged only 21 crashes while private planes have been involved in 85 accidents.
Statistics show a general decrease in total accidents since 1992 and 1993. Planes were involved in 162 accidents during the first 10 months of each of those years.
Despite the decrease in crashes, however, fatalities are up. Between January and October, 29 people were killed in a total of 10 crashes. That's more than the people killed in the same period in the past several years, although additional fatalities bumped the numbers up by the end of most years. But it's far below the 44 deaths reported in 1995.
One accident can account for numerous deaths, which can dramatically skew the numbers, Storm pointed out.
Such was the case in July, when 10 deaths were reported. Just one crash accounted for half that amount. Five Colorado residents were killed when their twin-engine Cessna went down near Sitka after the pilot reported a problem with an exterior cargo door. Later that month, two people were killed when their Super Cub crashed near Mount McKinley while they were viewing moose hunting sites.
Overall, FAA officials are encouraged by the shrinking number of accidents themselves. They said efforts by carriers -- and more recently passengers -- are paying off since a 1980 study by the National Transportation Safety Board found three major factors for the high number of accidents in Alaska.
The study noted one factor was the "Bush syndrome," or Alaskans' tolerance for risk. Another was inadequate airfield facilities and communications. The third was deficient weather observations and navigation tools.
Improvements since then include such innovations as portable runway lighting for small airports and weather-monitoring cameras in 30 locations around the state. But people have taken a much larger role in flight safety.
"Safety is a day in, day out exercise," Storm said. "People have to make good decisions every day, look at their equipment every day, look at the weather every day."
The challenge now is to reduce aviation accidents in Alaska by 20 percent over the next five years, according to John Duncan, manager of the FAA's flight standards division in Alaska.
"Over time the accident rate in Alaska has gotten better," Duncan said. "Lowering any more takes new approaches."
Recently created safety programs involving all players, even passengers, could help the agency reach that 20 percent goal.
Among the newest efforts is the Medallion Foundation, an FAA-funded voluntary program established last year that focuses on establishing standards that are higher than federal regulatory minimums. Participating air carriers are granted "Medallion status" after one-year compliance with the program's five-star standard.
The FAA also has created the "Circle of Safety" program to educate major customers of rural carriers such as school districts, remote municipalities and Native corporations. The idea is for those groups to set strict safety standards and to guide traveling employees on what questions to ask before flying, and how to address safety problems they might encounter.
Next, the FAA is looking at ways to improve training for private pilots. The agency is beginning to develop a program with flight instructors, as it has in Fairbanks for several years. Such a program statewide would have wide-reaching impact since some private pilots end up transferring their skills to commercial aviation, Duncan said.
"If we can improve the level of flight instruction, we can probably improve accident rates for commercial carriers as well," Duncan said. "It can make them better pilots overall, whether they jump in a plane to go moose hunting or crawl into a plane every day to fly passengers."