By Mark Huffman

June 1, 2010
The skies over the United States have been remarkably safe in the last decade. At least there has been a significant drop in the number of fatal accidents. But are we doing a better job when it comes to safety, or have we been incredibly lucky?

On the surface, the numbers suggest we're doing a better job of keeping planes aloft. Not counting the four airliners lost to terrorism on September 11, 2001, the U.S. suffered only five fatal accidents from 2000-2009.

In one of those accidents, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 slid off the runway at Chicago Midway Airport, hurting no one on board but killing a child when the plane struck a car.

The most recent fatal accidents have involved small, commuter airlines. On February 12, 2009 Colgan Air Flight 3407, a Bombardier Dash 8, crashed into a house in Buffalo, N.Y., killing all on board.

The next most-recent fatal accident involving a commercial airliner occurred in 2006, when Comair Flight 191, a Canadair CRJ-100 crashed after taking off from the wrong runway in Lexington, Ky., killing 49 of the 50 people on board.

To find a multiple fatality accident during the past decade that involved a major airline, and excluding the acts of 9/11, one would have to go all the way back to November 12, 2001 when American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus A300, crashed into a New York City neighborhood shortly after taking off from LaGuardia. The crashed claimed 265 lives.

The just completed decade stands out when it comes to fatal airline accidents. Previous decades, however, have been much more deadly. In 1985, for example, there were five fatal airline accidents that year, killing 272 people. Two of the crashes occurred within 20 days of one another.

Though the numbers suggest improved safety, other data support the belief that we've been very, very lucky. The French news agency, AFP, recently reported that the Federal Aviation Administration has begun to review its air traffic control procedures after a startling number of near-misses in the last few months.

Lost separation

"Over the last weeks there have been a number of instances where separation was lost between aircraft and in some cases there was a bit of a delay of notification that obviously caused some concern," FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford told AFP.

In other words, in several instances air traffic controllers have lost track of where planes are.

In one of the most recent incidents, US Airways Flight 140, with 138 passengers on board, came within 100 feet vertically and .33 mile laterally, of a Boeing 747 cargo plane over Alaska. No one was injured but the two planes were well inside aircraft separation limits.

Other close calls were reported in March at San Francisco International and two incidents involving Southwest Airlines jets at Houston.

The FAA is currently investigating these incidents. The Wall Street Journal reports the agency is also very concerned by delays in reporting these near-collisions. While incidents are supposed to be reported within 24 hours, the FAA says it received some reports several days after the fact.

It's been said that "it's better to be lucky than good," but for the flying public, "good" is preferable. After all, luck can run out.