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Wednesday, February 24, 1999 Published at 13:59 GMT

World: Americas

How safe are the skies?

Experts predict accidents will increase if action is not taken

The last major air tragedy was in September 1998, when Swissair MD-11 Flight 111 crashed into the Atlantic off Canada's coast, killing 229 passengers and crew.

It was one of the world's 20 worst aviation disasters in terms of fatalities and one of three in the last year in which more than 200 died.

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But the industry maintains flying is one of the the safest ways to travel.

And despite expert predictions that there will be even more major aviation crashes in the future, the industry may still be right.

One of the main reasons is that there are an increasing number of flights each year.

Safety efforts

Because of this increasing traffic, the US announced a big safety drive earlier in the year.

It launched ambitious plans to cut airline deaths by 80% over the next 10 years even though they expect the number of passengers to rise from the current 600 million to 1 billion by 2010.

US Vice-President Al Gore called in April last year for a more rigorous regime of engine checks and the compulsory installation of ground proximity indicators which warn when a plane is too near the ground.

With an average of one major accident for every million flights - or about three or four a year, Mr Gore warned the number of major accidents could double if no action was taken.

Safety officials believe that something has to be done or the number of deaths will inevitably rise simply because more people will be travelling by air.

Near misses

The UK Civil Aviation Authority also voiced concerns in April saying near misses between aircraft were double the rate they were five years ago.

They say incidents are getting more serious and British pilots say safety is being pushed to the limit.

However, air-traffic control officials still say the UK system is the safest in the world.

Air-traffic controllers reported 71 near misses in 1996, 63 of which involved commercial aircraft.

And there is no sign of a slowdown in the growing popularity of airline travel, as the growth of cut-price operators in the UK and recent BA purchases indicate.

Recent accidents

So far In 1998, in 12 major accidents worldwide, 789 have died.

In 1997, in 21 reported accidents, there were 1,093 fatalties.

Yet these are not exceptional years. In 1972 more than 2,500 people died in aviation accidents.

According to Aviation Safety Web Pages, 1997 was in fact the ninth safest year to fly since 1970 in terms of fatalities and fourth safest in terms of number of accidents.

It appears then that even if there are more major air crashes in the future, statistically it may not be any more dangerous for an individual to fly.

Indeed statistics may well suggest that it is more dangerous for that individual to stay at home.

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