For Iranian passengers, old planes and few parts make air travel 5.5 more times deadly

Bourse and Bazaar | Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: In November, Kim Hjelmgaard of USA Today reported on the misery and danger faced by Iran’s air travelers as US sanctions return. Hjelmgaard’s interviewed with former airline pilot Houshang Shahbazi who heroically “saved the lives of more than 100 passengers and crew in 2012 when he successfully landed a 747 commercial airplane with a disabled wheel carriage.” His report also included data on aviation safety in Iran complied by Bourse & Bazaar. A closer look at that data is presented here.

To measure the risks posed to air travelers in Iran, it is possible to look to deaths per passenger journey. This is considered the “most accurate measure” for the mortality risks posed by flying as it accounts for the difference between long and short haul flights, which operate different types of aircraft.

Passenger journeys are tabulated by the International Civil Aviation Organization, and accessible via the World Bank’s data portal. Air accidents and fatalities in Iran are recorded by the Air Safety Network, an industry database. For the purposes of this analysis, we will compare global fatalities with passengers fatalities from accidents involving Iranian-registered commercial aircraft within Iran.

The period examined is 1997 to 2017, a 20 year period which includes the most recent available data. This is also the period which covers the intensification of international sanctions on Iran, beginning with the Iran Libya Sanctions Act signed into law by the Clinton administration in 1997. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations body, has long gathered evidence which suggests that US sanctions contribute to the poor safety record of Iran’s aviation industry. A 2010 ICAO Universal Safety Audit found that “Iranian carriers are unable at present to fulfill most requisite ICAO aviation safety and maintenance standards and recommended practices (SARPs)… because they were denied access to updated aircraft and aircraft spare parts and post-sale services around the world.”

Looking to the data on risk of death, Iran’s 20 year average is 1.89 deaths per 1 million passenger journeys. The same figure for the rest of the world is 0.34 deaths. By this measure, flying in Iran is on average 5.5 times more deadly than flying in the rest of the world, in aggregate. Notably, this does not include 2018 figures, a year where Iran has had 66 fatalities.

When depicted in a chart, the ratios help illustrate the frequency with which Iran experiences serious air accidents. There have been accidents in 18 of the last 20 years, with an average of 2 accidents per year. Accidents do not always lead to fatalities. Fatalities are recorded in 9 of the last 20 years. But deaths can quickly mount when accidents occur at higher than normal levels. In 2009, Iran tragically experienced 7 aviation accidents, resulting in 189 deaths.

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Statistically speaking, air travel in Iran is still safe. This is in large part due to the efforts of Iranian pilots and maintenance crews to keep aircraft operable despite limited resources. But even if the overall risk of an accident remains statistically low, the risk still far exceeds expected levels. Over the last 20 years, Iran has witnessed 41 accidents, accounting for 6 percent of the global total. But the country accounts for just 0.6 percent of passenger journeys made worldwide in the same period. By this measure, the frequency of accidents in Iran is 10 times higher than the global norm.

To help put the risk of death in context, one French study found that the rate of fatalities for motorcyclists in France is 1.26 deaths per million journeys. By this jarring measure, a journey on a commercial flight in Iran is more dangerous than a journey on a motorcycle. Iranian passengers put up with these risks because they must—it is the only way to visit family, conduct business, or travel for pleasure. But the situation remains unacceptable.

As Shabazi poignantly told Hjelmgaard, “Everybody knows the risks Iranians face in the air… and everybody’s scared.”