Posted by: Tim Lincoln | December 26, 2009

Misinformed Media

I always shudder mentally when I see a media source commenting on an aviation accident. Generally they tend to be inaccurate, and at times flat-out wrong. It is also not uncommon for the media to over-sensationalize the event.  With the recent runway overrun accidents in Jamaica and Scotland, I figured it wouldn’t be long before I would have to clarify some information that is being pumped out by the media.

The Watertown Daily Times published a short article today, that on the surface seems to indicate that there is a major problem with runway overruns. Now I will be the first to say that every accident is one accident too many. However, it does aviation in general, and the airlines in particular, a disservice to provide data without context.

Using the Wall Street Journal figures quoted in the article, it may be fair to say that 30% of commercial aircraft accidents between 1995 and 2008 were the result of runway overruns. During that time period, the NTSB recorded 498 commercial aircraft accidents of all kinds, so the 30% figure provided by the WSJ would indicate there were approximately 149 runway overrun accidents. Unfortunately the Watertown Daily Times article does not provide a link to the WSJ article that mentions those figures, so it is difficult to determine how the WSJ arrived at those figures.

For the sake of argument however, we will go with the 30% figure. Now, 498 total commercial accidents and 149 runway overrun accidents seems like a lot, and it is. Keep in mind however, the number of aircraft that travel through the skies every day. As of right now (2151 EDT, 0251 GMT), FlightAware is currently tracking 3,149 aircraft in US airspace (including both commercial and GA aircraft). That means that in the air above our heads right now, there are at least that many aircraft. That does not include GA aircraft that are flying VFR, and therefore not required to file a flight plan or, in some cases, even be in contact with ATC. FlightAware also indicates that in the past 24 hours they tracked just over thirty-five thousand aircraft arrivals (again, including both commercial and GA aircraft).

Most flights that occur every day are commercial flights. However, for the sake of argument, let’s see what happens if we split that figure in half between commercial and GA flights. That would give us 17,500 commercial flights in the past 24 hours. A little on the light side perhaps, but that’s winter weather for you. Now if we use the 17,500 commercial flights as a daily average, that would give us 83,037,500 flights during the 13 year period during which 30% of commercial aircraft accidents were caused by runway overruns according to the WSJ. That means that 0.00018% of commercial flights resulted in a runway overrun. Is that a big problem? Yes, it’s a big problem, but perhaps not quite as big as the Watertown Daily Times would have you believe.

Yes, most runway overrun accidents are the result of contaminated runways. The accident in Scotland, for example, occurred when the aircraft had already slowed and was turning off of the runway. Initial reports indicate that one or more of the aircraft’s landing gear hit some black ice, causing the aircraft to slide off the runway into the grass. No one was hurt, and damage to the aircraft will most likely be minimal.

The Kingston accident was more extreme. The aircraft went off the end of the runway at a high-speed, through the airport fence, across a road, and ended up stopped next to a beach with the fuselage broken into several pieces. Several people were hurt, but there were no fatalities. It is too early to tell what happened to cause this result, so implying that pilot judgment is to blame is irresponsible.

Perhaps the best sentence in the Watertown Daily Times’ article is the last one. “It will be interesting to see what investigators find about the recent runway overrun in Jamaica.”

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