Friday, April 3, 2009

Fatalities rose in 2008 for air taxi, tour flights

There was a spike last year in deaths from crashes of air medical, air taxi and tour flights, federal safety officials said Thursday.

The National Transportation Safety Board said there were 56 so-called on-demand flight accidents in which 66 people were killed in 2008. That's the highest number of fatalities for such flights in eight years and an increase of 13 deaths over 2007. The on-demand accident rate was 1.52 accidents per 100,000 flight hours, virtually unchanged from the previous year.

The board held a public hearing earlier this year examining the safety practices of the air medical helicopter industry. Fifteen people were killed in four medical helicopter crashes in 2008.

Major U.S. airlines, however, suffered no accident fatalities in 2008 for the second consecutive year despite carrying 753 million passengers on more than 10.8 million flights, the NTSB said. Major airlines experienced 28 accidents last year, the same as 2007.

Commuter airlines, which typically fly smaller turboprop planes, also didn't have any accident fatalities despite making 581,000 flights last year, the board said. However, there were seven commuter airline accidents in 2008, up three from the previous year.

There were 495 people killed — one fewer than the previous year — in general aviation accidents in 2008, the board said. General aviation includes private and corporate planes.

Acting NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker said the aviation safety record for 2008 was mixed.

"We are particularly concerned with the spike in fatalities in on-demand air charter operations," Rosenker said. "There's a lot of room for improvement in this area."

This year, however, has gotten off to a bad start. The nation suffered its deadliest air crash in seven years on Feb. 12 when a commuter airliner tumbled out of control and onto a house near Buffalo, N.Y., killing all 49 people on board and one man in the house.

Another 14 people were killed March 22 when a private plane carrying three families en route to a ski vacation in Montana crashed near the Bert Mooney Airport in Butte.

A potential disaster was averted on Jan. 15 when the pilot of a US Airways Airbus A320 ditched the airliner into New York's Hudson River rather than risk crashing in a densely populated area. All 155 aboard survived. The airliner lost thrust in both engines after crossing the path of a flock of Canada geese.