Safety Report - Survivability of Accidents Involving Part 121 U.S. Air Carrier Operations, 1983-1999

NTSB Number: SR-01-01
NTIS Number: PB2001-917001
Adopted February 21, 2001
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Executive Summary

Passenger enplanements in the United States more than doubled in the 16 years following 1983. According to recent Federal Aviation Administration forecasts, this growth is expected to continue, approaching 1 billion enplanements by the year 2010 (an additional 53-percent increase). Despite the growing demands on the U.S. aviation system, the system continues to maintain its high level of safety. The accident rate for commercial aircraft has remained about the same for the past two decades. If the accident rate continues, however, increased traffic projected over the next 10 years will be accompanied by a commensurate increase in the number of aircraft accidents. To prevent this from occurring, Government agencies are working with industry to reduce the rate of accidents.

There are two ways to prevent fatalities in air travel: by preventing accidents, and by protecting aircraft occupants in the accidents that do occur. A reduction in accident rates provides an indication of the success of accident prevention; examining occupant survivability can indicate the positive results from occupant protection. The importance of examining occupant survivability in aviation accidents is twofold: (1) it can help to dispel a public perception that most air carrier accidents are not survivable, and (2) it can identify things that can be done to increase survivability in the accidents that do occur.

The Safety Board frequently receives inquiries from the general public and Government agencies concerning the survivability of airplane accidents. Although the Safety Board's Annual Review of Aircraft Accident Data for U.S. Air Carrier Operations summarizes the degree of occupant injury by aircraft damage, the annual publication has not, in the past, analyzed the issue of survivability in detail. Therefore, the purpose of this safety report is to examine aircraft occupant survivability for air carrier operations in the United States. The Safety Board examined only air carrier operations performed under Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 121 because the majority of the Board's survival factors investigations are conducted in connection with accidents involving Part 121 carriers. Therefore, more survivability data are available for Part 121 operations than are available for Part 135 and Part 91 (general aviation) operations. This report also examines cause-of-death information for the most serious of the Part 121 accidents; that is, those accidents involving fire, at least one serious injury or fatality, and either substantial aircraft damage or complete destruction.

Findings

  1. In all accidents involving Part 121 operations from 1983 through 2000, 51,207 occupants (95.7 percent) survived whereas 2,280 occupants died.
  2. In 528 (93.0 percent) of the 568 accidents involving Part 121 operations from 1983 to 2000, more than 80 percent of the occupants survived.
  3. In serious Part 121 accidents (those involving fire, serious injury, and either substantial aircraft damage or complete destruction), there were 2,739 occupants; 1,524 (55.6 percent) of those occupants survived.
  4. In 12 (46.2 percent) of the 26 serious Part 121 accidents from 1983 through 2000, more than 80 percent of the occupants survived.
  5. In serious Part 121 accidents from 1983 through 2000, there were nearly five times more impact fatalities than fire-related fatalities.
  6. In serious Part 121 accidents from 1983 through 2000 that were categorized as survivable, 1,523 of the 1,988 occupants (76.6 percent) survived.
  7. In serious Part 121 accidents from 1983 through 2000 that were categorized as survivable, over twice as many occupants died as a result of impact forces than as a result of fire.
  8. In 12 (63.2 percent) of the 19 serious Part 121 accidents from 1983 through 2000 that were categorized as survivable, more than 80 percent of the occupants survived.
  9. Public perception of survivability may be substantially lower than the actual rate of 95.7 percent for all Part 121 accidents.