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Flying has never been safer (continued)

Thanks to stricter regulatory requirements and the use of new technologies, air traffic safety has improved significantly in recent decades. As long-term investors, we see exciting investment opportunities in the protection and safety segment, particularly in testing, certification and inspections, anti-collision systems, radar, and navigation systems.

July 13, 2023

Dr. Patrick Kolb

Senior Portfolio Manager

In an article that we published on aviation safety three years ago, our key message was that safety had improved significantly since 1970. We wrote that 2019 was the third-safest year for civil aviation in terms of the number of victims, with a total of 20 accidents and 283 deaths.1

In this latest issue, we revisit the topic and look at how aviation safety has developed in recent years – particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Air travel was once again very safe in 2022: the number of fatal accidents in civil aviation remains on a downward trend. In fact, last year was one of the safest in the history of commercial civil aviation. According to information from the Aviation Safety Network, 12 accidents involving civil aircraft occurred worldwide, in which a total of 205 people tragically lost their lives.2

However, it should be noted that the most recent years were heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, according to the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), airlines carried over 4.5 billion passengers worldwide in 2019·–·more than 14 times as many as in 1970.3 Due to the outbreak of COVID-19 at the beginning of 2020, passenger air travel temporarily came to a virtual standstill in many countries because of border closures and travel restrictions. The number of air passengers decreased by over 60% to around 1.8 billion, and most airlines saw huge revenue losses which forced them to lay off staff and restructure their companies.4 The situation has improved in subsequent years with the number of air passengers increasing to 2.3 billion in 2021 and 3.2 billion in 2022 – though that is still just around 74% of the 2019 volume.5 For 2023, the ICAO announced that it expects passenger numbers to be around 3% above the 2019 level by the end of the current year. In 2024, demand could therefore be 4% higher than in 2019. The organization is forecasting a “complete and sustainable recovery”.6

Figure 1 shows the number of flights since 2014. While there were almost 47 million flights in 2019, the number of flights fell to around 22 million a year later. Although air traffic has clearly recovered somewhat, it has not yet returned to pre-crisis levels: in 2022 there were 32 million flight movements, which is still just over 30% fewer than in 2019.

Figure 1: Number of flights in global aviation (2014–2022, in millions)

As mentioned earlier, civil airlines carried around 3.2 billion passengers last year – around a quarter fewer than in the pre-pandemic period. Figure 2 shows that in 2022 the number of passengers was still around eight times higher than in 1970. In the 1970s, the probability of dying in a plane crash averaged around 1:264,000; last year, however, that figure was 1:15,609,756. In other words, statistically speaking, flying was around 59 times safer in 2022 than it was back in the 1970s.7

Figure 2: Number of fatalities in commercial civil aviation and development of global passenger traffic flows since 1970

German Aviation Association (2023): Wie sicher war Luftverkehr im Jahr 2022? [How safe was air travel in 2022?], URL: https://www.bdl.aero/de/publikation/wie-sicher-war-luftverkehr-im-jahr-2022/, April 14, 2023.

The long-term decline in the number of fatalities has fluctuated for decades. Having reached a historical low in 2017, it was slightly higher in subsequent years; however, the trend shows that the number of people injured continues to fall.

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What makes flying so safe?

Redundancy systems and aircraft maintenance are the key factors behind safe air travel: all important components – whether individual screws or complex systems – are built at least in duplicate and, in some cases, even in triplicate. This system of back-ups ensures that an aircraft can continue to function even if a particular part fails. Each individual component, however small, is specified precisely for its particular purpose and is certified and approved by the regulator. If it fails, it can only be replaced by an identical component: in other words, do-it-yourself solutions are not permitted. Generally-speaking, aircraft maintenance is a very time-consuming and often laborious process. Many components have a fixed service life and need to be replaced or completely refurbished at the end of each period. Importantly, this major effort ensures that the aircraft can be used safely over many years.8

Another main reason that flying is so safe is the fact that every aviation accident, near-miss, and irregularity is reported and investigated, with appropriate conclusions drawn once the causes have been determined. The belief that learning is a continuous, never-ending process is an important part of aviation safety culture. The result of this approach is that every incident makes air travel that much safer, as lessons are drawn from each incident. Alongside redundancy systems and maintenance, the main drivers of greatly improved aviation safety also include more reliable aircraft technology, continuous developments in airport infrastructure and air traffic control, as well as improvements in luggage, passenger, and freight controls.

Air traffic safety during COVID-19

Recent years have seen commercial air travel face particular challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Protective and hygiene measures were brought in and fine-tuned to ensure the safest possible flight experience for passengers9

  • Hygiene and distancing rules were among the first measures to be brought in at airports. Where it is not possible to maintain social distancing at particular points in an airport (e.g. during security checks), mask-wearing is compulsory.
  • Employees in close contact with customers are protected by infection prevention screens.
  • Boarding and disembarking are organized in such a way that crowding can be avoided, and boarding now takes place primarily via passenger boarding bridges. If buses are nevertheless required, a greater number of vehicles are used.
  • In addition to compulsory mask-wearing, the supply of fresh, continuously cleaned air to the cabin is another factor.10 This generally consists of 40% to 60% recirculated air and 60% to 40% external air, which enters the cabin via the engines.11 As Figure 3 shows, the volume of cabin air is replaced every three minutes or so. The airflow on board is mainly from top to bottom: the air is pumped through the ceiling into the cabin at a speed of one meter per second, then extracted again below the window seats.
  • The recirculating air is cleaned using high-efficiency particulate arrestance (HEPA) filters (see Figure 3), which even remove micro-organisms (bacteria, viruses) with a diameter greater than 0.1 µm from the recirculating air. These particle filters are extremely efficient and can filter out up to 99.993% of all particles from the cabin air.12

Figure 3: How air circulates within an aircraft

Source: German Aviation Association (2020): Was macht Luftverkehr in Corona-Zeiten sicher? [What makes aviation safe in the COVID-19 era?], URL: https://www.bdl.aero/de/publikation/was-macht-luftverkehr-in-corona-zeiten-sicher/, April 26, 2023.

A study by Harvard University on the effectiveness of ventilation systems in aircraft shows that the probability of contracting the COVID-19 infection is low if passengers wear masks and disinfect their hands frequently.13 Nonetheless, experts point out that the systems cannot fully protect against infection. HEPA filters can only clean the particles that actually pass through them.14 In our view, these additional measures nevertheless make a significant contribution to keeping the risk of infection as low as possible, thanks to good ventilation.

Conclusion

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Credit Suisse Asset Management (2020): Flying has never been safer, in spite of Boeing 737 Max, Thematic Insights, Credit Suisse Asset Management, April 2020.
Source: Aviation Safety Network (2023), URL: https://aviation-safety.net/database/dblist.php?Year=2022, April 24, 2023.
Source: ICAO (2019): The world of air transport in 2019, URL: https://www.icao.int/annual-report-2019/Pages/the-world-of-air-transport-in-2019.aspx, April 27, 2023.
Source: ICAO (2020): The world of air transport in 2020, URL: https://www.icao.int/annual-report-2020/Pages/the-world-of-air-transport-in-2020.aspx#:~:text=Scheduled%20international%20freight%20capacity%20in,increased%20to%2057%20per%20cent, April 27, 2023. 
Sources: ICAO (2021): The world of air transport in 2021, URL: https://www.icao.int/sustainability/WorldofAirTransport/Pages/the-world-of-air-transport-in-2021.aspx#:~:text=According%20to%20ICAO%27s%20preliminary%20compilation,a%2019.2%20per%20cent%20increase, April 27, 2023. German Aviation Association (2023): Wie sicher war Luftverkehr im Jahr 2022? [How safe was air travel in 2022?], URL: https://www.bdl.aero/de/publikation/wie-sicher-war-luftverkehr-im-jahr-2022/, April 27, 2023.
Source: ICAO (2023): ICAO forecasts complete and sustainable recovery and growth of air passenger demand in 2023, February 8, 2023, URL: https://www.icao.int/Newsroom/Pages/ICAO-forecasts-complete-and-sustainable-recovery-and-growth-of-air-passenger-demand-in-2023.aspx, April 27, 2023.
7 In 2019 this statistical figure was 1 to 16 million. In other words,·taking a flight had become around 61 times safer than it was back in the 1970s (source: German Aviation Association (2020): Luftfahrt aktuell #1/2020: Fakten und Hintergründe zum deutschen Luftverkehr [Aviation Today #1/2020: Facts and background on German aviation], January 2020, p. 1).
8 Source: Airliners.de (2022): So sicher ist Fliegen [How safe flying really is], URL: https://www.airliners.de/antworten-cockpit-15-fliegen/37718, April 27, 2023. See in addition footnote 6 on A, B, C, and D checks in Credit Suisse Asset Management (2020): Flying has never been safer, in spite of Boeing 737 Max.
9Source: German Aviation Association (2020): Was macht Luftverkehr in Corona-Zeiten sicher? [What makes aviation safe in the COVID-19 era?], URL: https://www.bdl.aero/de/publikation/was-macht-luftverkehr-in-corona-zeiten-sicher/, April 26, 2023.
10A study by the US agency Centers for Disease Control Prevention (CDC) confirms the importance of wearing face masks and of ventilation system during flights. For the study, researchers examined a long-distance flight from Dubai (United Arab Emirates) to Auckland (New Zealand). During the flight, four passengers were infected by one or two people who had already been infected before they boarded the aircraft. Two of the infected passengers had not worn face masks during the flight (source: CDC (2021): Genomic evidence of in-flight transmission of SARS-CoV-2 despite predeparture testing, March 2021, URL: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/27/3/20-4714_article, April 26, 2023.
11 Source: Fraunhofer Institut (2023): Luftqualität in der Flugzeugkabine [Air quality in the aircraft cabin], URL: https://www.ibp.fraunhofer.de/de/kompetenzen/umwelt-hygiene-sensorik/luftqualitaet-im-innenraum/luftqualitaet-in-der-flugzeugkabine.html, April 26, 2023.
12 Source: IATA (2023): Cabin air and low risk of on-board transmission, URL: https://www.iata.org/en/youandiata/travelers/health/low-risk-transmission/, April 28, 2023.
13 Source: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (2020): Assessment of risks of SARS-CoV-2 transmission during air travel and non-pharmaceutical interventions to reduce risk, URL: https://cdn1.sph.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/2443/2020/10/HSPH-APHI-Phase-One-Report.pdf, April 28, 2023. 
14 Source: DW (2021): Faktencheck: Wie groß ist die Ansteckungsgefahr im Flugzeug? [Fact check: What's the infection risk in an aircraft?],·URL: https://www.dw.com/de/faktencheck-wie-gro%C3%9F-ist-die-ansteckungsgefahr-im-flugzeug/a-57310652, April 26, 2023.
15 Source: SPIEGEL Panorama (2019):What a coach recommends against the fear of flying[Was ein Coach gegen Flugangst empfiehlt],·URL: https://www.spiegel.de/panorama/flugangst-die-autofahrt-zum-airport-ist-gefaehrlicher-als-der-flug-a-1261895.html, May 25, 2023.
16 Source: Flüge.de (2023): So sicher ist fliegen [How safe flying really is], URL: https://www.xn--flge-1ra.de/ratgeber/infografik-sichere-verkehrsmittel-wie-sicher-ist-fliegen/, April 27, 2023.
17 ·Source: IATA (2023): IATA releases 2022 airline safety performance, March 7, 2023, URL: https://www.iata.org/en/pressroom/2023-releases/2023-03-07-01/, April 27, 2023.
18 By pure-play, we mean companies that generate at least 50% of their revenues directly from the relevant theme.

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