What are the causes of airline accidents?

A passenger looks out the cabin window of an airliner.
Photo Credit: Tim Gouw via Pexels

Air travel is one of the safest modes of transportation in the world. However, despite the industry’s best efforts to maintain safety, accidents do happen from time to time.

When aviation accidents occur, they can be potentially devastating and have far-reaching consequences. In this article, we will explore the main causes of airline accidents.

We also put some further perspective on the overall safety of air travel compared to other modes of transport.

Human error

Statistically, the vast majority of airline accidents are now attributed to human error. This can include mistakes made by pilots, air traffic controllers, maintenance personnel, and others. For example, a pilot may make an incorrect decision in a high-pressure situation, or a mechanic may overlook a critical maintenance task.

Pilot error due to fatigue

Pilot fatigue can lead to a range of errors, including incorrect decision-making, slower reaction times, and lapses in judgment.

Pilots are required to follow strict rules regarding the amount of rest they must have between flights, but in some cases, these rules may be disregarded or overlooked.

Pilot error due to distraction

In today’s connected world, pilots may also be susceptible to distraction from personal electronic devices or other factors.

This can include checking messages, making phone calls, or browsing the internet. Although airlines have policies in place to limit these distractions, they can still occur.

Mechanical failure

Although less common than human error, mechanical failure can also be a cause of airline accidents. This can include issues with engines, landing gear, or other critical components of an aircraft.

In some cases, mechanical failures can be traced back to inadequate maintenance practices or defective parts. That being said, the aviation industry is heavily regulated, and numerous checks and balances are in place with respect to aircraft maintenance control and the quality and certification of spare parts and components.


Adverse weather conditions, such as heavy rain, ice, or fog, can also contribute to airline accidents. Pilots must be trained to handle these conditions, but sometimes weather events can be too severe to safely navigate.

In some cases, airlines may also be pressured to keep flights on schedule despite hazardous weather conditions.

Sabotage or terrorism

Although relatively rare, acts of sabotage or terrorism can also cause airline accidents. This can include the use of explosives or other weapons, as well as cyberattacks or other forms of disruption.

Airlines have implemented numerous security measures to prevent such events, but they remain a potential risk.

Air traffic control errors

Air traffic controllers play a critical role in ensuring the safe operation of air travel. However, mistakes made by controllers can also contribute to accidents. For example, a controller may give incorrect instructions to a pilot or fail to alert a pilot to nearby traffic.

A chain of events

Typically though, it is a chain of events which leads to an accident; rather than one single factor.

One example is an airline accident attributed to human error – the crash of Air France Flight 447 in 2009. The flight was en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris when it encountered severe turbulence and storms over the Atlantic Ocean. The aircraft, an Airbus A330, crashed into the ocean, killing all 228 people on board.

An investigation into the crash revealed that the accident was caused by a combination of factors, including technical malfunction, weather conditions, and crucially, human error.

The pilots of the aircraft failed to react correctly to the technical malfunction and the extreme weather conditions.

They also made errors in their decision-making and communication with each other, which ultimately led to the loss of the aircraft.

The investigation found that the pilots had become distracted by a technical fault with the aircraft’s airspeed indicators, which had caused them to provide conflicting inputs to the aircraft’s controls.

This confusion led to a loss of situational awareness, and the pilots were unable to respond effectively to the challenges presented by the severe weather conditions.

Air travel vs other modes of transport

In conclusion, airline accidents can be caused by a wide range of contributing factors, including human error, mechanical failure, weather, sabotage or terrorism, air traffic control errors, pilot error due to fatigue, and pilot error due to distraction.

To put things into perspective, air travel is considered to be one of the safest modes of transportation in the world.

According to data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the global accident rate for commercial flights in 2020 was 0.13 per one million flights. This means that out of every million commercial flights, only 0.13 resulted in an accident.

In comparison, the fatality rate for road transport in the United States is around 11 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

This means that road travel is significantly more dangerous than air travel, with a much higher risk of fatalities.

Similarly, the fatality rate for water transport is higher than air travel. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the number of worldwide shipping losses in 2019 was 41, which resulted in 2,816 fatalities.

This means that while air travel has a very low accident rate, water transport accidents are more common and can result in a higher number of fatalities.

In terms of rail travel, statistics show that it is generally safer than road transport but not as safe as air travel. According to the European Union Agency for Railways, the number of fatalities per billion passenger kilometres in the European Union in 2019 was 0.15 for rail travel.

While this is significantly lower than the fatality rate for road transport, it is still higher than the accident rate for air travel.

Overall, air travel is considered to be one of the safest modes of transportation due to its low accident rate and high level of safety standards.

The aviation industry has made great strides in improving safety over the years, with improved technology, training, and safety procedures. However, while air travel is generally safe, accidents do occur from time to time, and the industry must remain vigilant to potential risks and threats to maintain its safety record.

By Len Varley - Assistant Editor 8 Min Read
8 Min Read
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