Deadly mistakes by pilots the No. 1 cause of commercial airline crashes have decreased dramatically over the past decade. But a new concern has emerged in the government’s efforts to make air travel safer: poor maintenance.

A USA TODAY analysis of 22 years of crash data and interviews with more than two dozen aviation analysts suggest that innovative training and modern jets with better warning systems have helped pilots quickly correct what might once have been fatal mistakes.

As a result, crashes caused by pilots about two-thirds of all accidents from the 1960s through the mid 1990s fell to about half of all crashes from 1995 through 2001.

But as the industry focused on improvements in the cockpit, tackling maintenance problems remained a lower priority. The consequence: Accidents caused by maintenance errors have become the second-most- likely category of accident since 1995. More than 30% of accidents from 1997 through 2001 were caused at least in part by maintenance mistakes.

Such errors include a mistake by mechanics that caused an Air Midwest plane to slam into the ground after takeoff on Jan. 8, 2003. Twenty-one people died. Thursday, the National Transportation Safety Board issued recommendations in that crash investigation aimed at improving maintenance at all airlines.

The federal government requires minimal training for mechanics after they’ve been licensed. And airlines have opposed some improvements in maintenance, in part because they say they’re too costly. Still, accident investigators and airline industry sources say they see no evidence that maintenance is worse today than in the past.

The newspaper analyzed accidents from 1980 through 2001, the last year for which the NTSB has determined the causes of most crashes.

The analysis shows that:

The rate of accidents and the number of people killed each year have fallen significantly. In the 1980s, accidents occurred nine times per 10 million flights. That fell to about six per 10 million flights in the 1990s. Fatalities averaged 186 per year in the 1980s and dropped 40% to 111 in the 1990s, even as the number of flights increased.

Mistakes by pilots remained the most common cause of accidents, but the category declined more sharply than the overall accident rate. Accidents attributed to pilots dropped from six per 10 million flights in the 1980s to below four per 10 million in the 1990s. From 1995 through 2001, the rate dropped below three per 10 million. There were 10.6 million domestic flights in 2002.

Maintenance errors emerged as the second-most-likely cause of accidents. Maintenance caused an average of slightly more than one crash per 10 million flights in the 1990s. It was the only major category of accidents that did not decline.

The Commercial Aviation Safety Team, a joint federal and industry group that helps set the agenda for safety improvements, last year identified maintenance as a “remaining risk.”



We're here to help!

We live by our creed of "helping those who need it most" and have helped thousands of clients get the justice they desperately needed and deserved. If you feel you have a case or just have questions please contact us for a free consultation. There is no risk and no fees unless we win for you.

Fields marked    may be required for submission.
  1. I'm an attorney

Runway incursions increase in U.S. for 4th consecutive...

Without a doubt the holiday season is the busiest time of the year for air travel in the U.S. The trade...

Third Osprey crash in a year, 3 Marines presumed dead

A U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey crashed off the eastern coast of Australia early Saturday morning. The...

Aviation safety and litigation addressed by Beasley...

Beasley Allen attorney Kendall Dunson welcomes fellow principal Mike Andrews to discuss aviation safety...

Beasley Allen files lawsuit for family of Marine...

Matthew J. Determan was killed during a training mission in Hawaii when the V22 Osprey helicopter he was...

Beasley Allen files lawsuit on behalf of pilot killed...

The wrongful death lawsuit alleges flight school Airline Transport Professionals allowed student pilot...
UPS plane crash, NTSB searches

UPS plane crash in Birmingham being investigated by...

Investigators have retrieved the “black box” data recorder from a UPS cargo airplane that crashed...

Wonderful to work with

Beasley Allen did a great job with my case. They were wonderful to work with. They were available by phone when I needed them, treated me with the utmost respect and worked hard on my behalf. If a need arises in the future, I would definitely call on them again.

—Geraldine