Are smaller planes less safe than larger planes?

Since the start of the year, just over three weeks ago, there has been one commercial plane crash, that of an ageing Boeing 707 cargo aircraft in Iran that claimed the lives of 15 people.

In that same period, four other accidents killed six people in the world of "general aviation", the catch-all term for unscheduled charter flights, including private jets, sightseeing trips and amateur flying. 

This trajectory of the number of plane crashes will continue throughout the year, commercial aviation - that is, international airlines - will keep its accident numbers to single figures as global safety improves exponentially, while small aircraft will continue to drop out of the sky.

Take 2017, famously the safest year on record for air travel, without a single fatality on a passenger jet. But in terms of general aviation, preliminary figures from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) show in the US alone there were 346 deaths across 1,316 accidents. In Europe, according to figures compiled by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), there were 121 deaths. Between 2012 and 2017, there have been 974 general aviation fatalities in European Union nations alone (compared to 206 in "commercial air transport").

Given that airliners carry far more people than smaller aircraft, with a handful of fatal crashes leading to death tolls upwards of a thousand, it is apparent that more light aircraft than large aircraft must experience fatal accidents, but is that because there are so many more?

As global airline fatality rates are usually measured in miles flown or departures, there are not always direct comparisons available. However, one exists for the years 2002-2011, during which years there were 0.4 fatal accidents per million hours flown. For general aviation over the same period, the annual figure did not drop below 12 (with an average of 12.8). In 2017, it was 9.3.

The Federal Aviation Administration in the US is alone in measuring fatal accident rates for both airliners and general aviation in hours flown. In 2017, the FAA found that general aviation racked up 21.7 million flying hours, with a fatal accident rate of 0.931 per 100,000 hours, while 29 US carriers flew 18 million hours without a single fatal accident.

Why do small aircraft crash?

Such crashes around the world are so common, with an average of nearly four a day in America alone, it is only a small percentage that make the news, and become subject to public and media scrutiny.

But according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the US aviation governing body, which last year announced it was working "on a number of key initiatives to improve general aviation safety", the number one cause of a crash of a small aircraft is "loss of control in-flight" - mainly stalls, the FAA said - followed by "controlled flight into terrain" (often in poor weather) and "system component failure".

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The FAA said its campaign would focus on a number of areas, including training and education of pilots, technology implementation, and risk reduction. Incredibly, 25 per cent of America's general aviation accidents over the last five years included "amateur built and other experimental aircraft". The EASA has identified "experience, training and competence of individuals" as a contributing factor in general aviation accidents.

Are small planes less safe than larger?

It might seem that way, but there are other contributing factors.

"In a nutshell, the size of an airplane is not in any way linked to safety," explains Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at StretegivAero Research. "Rather it's all down to the regular maintenance regimes to ensure that airplanes comply with regulations to fly and operate safely.

"Statistics can be skewered all too easily to suit a particular argument and I certainly do not ascribe risk with small airplanes. Lest we forget, pilot training schools almost all use single engine jets for training and that's where it all starts before progressing to bigger jets."

The regulation of airlines is incredibly rigorous and strict, and as much risk as possible is eliminated. General aviation aircraft are not subject to quite so stringent regulation.

Furthermore, the likes of Airbus and Boeing build into their aircraft redundancy after redundancy to ensure that should anything go wrong, there will be a safety net.

Such enthusiastic application of safety guidelines for airlines has seen the yearly fatality rate tumble in the airline industry, an achievement the FAA and EASA are attempting to match in general aviation.

What about the risks involved in having just one engine?

Should an A380 or Boeing 747 lose an engine in-flight, it is not usually a cause for real concern as there are still three remaining - this is why four-engine aircraft are allowed to fly further from their nearest emergency airport than twin-engine planes are - however, on a single-engine aircraft, as the plane involved in Monday's crash was, there is no back up.

Indeed, it was only in 2017 that the EU dropped its safety concerns and allowed single-engine turboprop aircraft to fly at night or in poor weather across Europe.

The absence of a back-up engine is also compared to the absence of a second pilot, while modern airliners have safety elements built into systems that older, private aircraft might not have.

How can I tell a small aircraft is safe?

Holidaymakers might encounter small aircraft on safaris, tropical island trips or sightseeing tours, and although it is difficult at face value to know if a plane is safe, there are ways to mitigate risk.

"In all honesty, air travel is so safe, many of us don't give a second thought to hopping on any airplane. The biggest risk is getting to the airport," says Saj Ahmad.

"To that end, while passengers don't always get to choose the airplane type they fly (which is always susceptible to operational changes etc), flying with reputable operators who, in your example, specialise in tours and excursions would be the best option.

"Obviously the layman wouldn't be able to discern whether an airplane is safe or not, however, operator reputation will go a long way in boosting customer confidence prior to booking for trips like sightseeing/etc."

Nick Trend, Telegraph Travel's chief consumer editor, agrees. He says: "Beyond checking that the company concerned has the necessary local licences and permits, and is well reviewed on social media, it's simply not feasible for a tourist to judge whether or not a particular adventure excursion - whether it is a sightseeing flight, white water rafting or a pony trek - is going to be well-run and safe.

"But you will have better legal protection if you book it as part of a package holiday with a UK-based tour operator. It will then be liable for your safety, and should ensure that the local company it has booked you with is properly licensed and professionally operated. If there are problems or an accident, then you will also  - if necessary - be able to follow up in the UK courts."

The Telegraph, London

See also: Why can't airlines devise a better boarding process?

See also: How to get a decent amount of sleep on a plane

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