2020 Aviation Safety: Fewer Incidents, More Fatalities

By Spyros Georgilidakis | January 3, 2021

A look at aviation safety in 2020 reveals an increase in fatalities, but a better look at individual cases shows a somewhat different picture. Comparisons are difficult in any case.

Typically, year-on-year comparisons are useful, because they can reveal trends. But in terms of aviation safety, 2020 is a tougher one to examine. Flying not only came down dramatically from previous years, the nature of flying itself changed.

2020 Aviation Safety: Fewer Incidents, More Fatalities

Dutch aviation consulting firm To70 examined aviation safety statistics in 2020. They identified 40 accidents involving large commercial passenger jets. There were 299 fatalities in five accidents. In the previous year, there were 257 fatalities in eight lethal accidents, out of a total of 86 accidents.

In other words, the number of accidents went down, by 53%, but fatalities went up 16%. Clearly this is not the full story about aviation safety in 2020. The reduction in the number of accidents is more or less consistent with the reduction in the number of flights. This fell by 42%. As for the number of fatalities, a look at specific cases quickly reveals the explanation.


2020 Aviation Safety In (more) Numbers

Of a total of 299 fatalities last year, 274 happened on just two incidents. The biggest aviation safety incident of 2020 was also the first. It was the shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 over Iran. All 176 people on board perished when the aircraft came down, after two missile hits. The incident happened during a rapid escalation of Iran-US relations, as we’ve seen here.

The other major aviation safety incident came later in 2020. It was the crash of Pakistan International Airlines Flight 8303, in May. There were 98 fatalities from this accident, one of which was a person on the ground. The incident had further repercussions, including a fake license scandal and the blacklisting of PIA by EASA, as we saw.

2020 Aviation Safety: Fewer Incidents, More Fatalities

Note here that this report does not include accidents in regional or smaller civil aircraft. It also doesn’t include incidents involving cargo aircraft. A look at aviation safety in 2020 would not be complete without a look at cargo, as it stayed very much in business, almost throughout the year. In any case, 2019 also was an unusual year, with one 737 MAX incident accounting for a large proportion of fatalities.

There have been concerns that fewer flight hours for pilots in 2020 and beyond could hurt aviation safety. There isn’t such a trend in the numbers. The overall drop in accident numbers was higher than the drop in flights. But this is something that airlines and authorities will be looking at carefully. And it isn’t simply about training, it’s about getting planes out of storage as well.


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