Two fatal accidents involving light aircraft carrying holidaymakers made headlines as 2017 ended, in a year in which almost 400 people died in crashes involving light aircraft flown by civil aviation operators. Should travel insurers reconsider how they insure passengers on such flights? Robin Gauldie reports
On 31 December last year, a De Havilland DHC-2 floatplane operated by Sydney Seaplanes crashed in the Hawkesbury River, killing the pilot and five British passengers. Also on 31 December, 10 US holidaymakers and two pilots died when a Cessna 208 Caravan belonging to Nature Air crashed en route from San Jose to Punta Islita, on Costa Rica. In November, a Cessna Grand Caravan aircraft flown by Coastal Airlines en route to Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park crashed, killing all 11 on board, including four tourists.
US President Donald Trump took credit for increased air safety in the US recently, claiming to have made 2017 ‘the best and safest year on record’. As usual, Trump was generous to himself in his interpretation of the facts – there have, in fact, been no civil airline crashes in the US since 2009, eight years before he took office. Perhaps the president should consider getting strict on operators of smaller aircraft too. Following the Costa Rica crash, James Hall, former head of the US National Transportation Safety Board, told Fox News (Trump’s favourite TV channel) that private tourist flights ‘do not have the type of oversight and regulation that we have with commercial aviation in the US’. “The average tourist is not going to be able to make determination about the safety of those flights,” Hall added.
When a ‘flightseeing’ aircraft loaded with holidaymakers or a light aircraft carrying vacationers to a tropical resort is involved in a fatal crash, it attracts media attention. When one of the casualties is a well-known figure such as Richard Cousins, chairman of the world’s largest catering company, who died with his family in the Sydney Seaplanes crash, the story takes on more prominence. When the aircraft involved is a puddle-jumper carrying locals on a routine ‘milk run’ in a remote part of Alaska or Canada, the story is less likely to go global.
According to the Geneva-based Aircraft Crashes Record Office, a non-profit organisation, there were 101 civil aviation crashes worldwide in 2017, all involving smaller aircraft. There were no crashes involving scheduled airline flights. Only a few incidents resulted in more than 10 deaths – but the total death toll was 399. To put the figures in context: according to Aviation Safety Network, a Netherlands-based organisation, all but two of the 20 worst airline crashes ever caused fewer than 350 deaths. So the annual death toll from incidents involving smaller aircraft is equivalent to at least one major airline crash per year.
For many, nostalgia is part of the appeal of a flight in a ‘vintage’ aircraft like the De Havilland Beaver, but when an older aircraft type crashes, attention often focuses on its age and history. Reference is often also made to other fatal accidents involving similar planes. Following the Sydney crash, newspapers soon remembered that in August 2015, four Britons and a French tourist died when another DHC-2 crashed in Quebec, Canada.
The vintage Grumman Mallard seaplanes operated by Chalk’s Ocean Airways between Miami and the Bahamas were an attraction in their own right until 2005, when metal fatigue caused a crash that killed 20 passengers and crew and the service was suspended.
However, age is not necessarily a factor that should influence passengers (and their insurers) unduly – newer aircraft types may also be involved in fatal crashes. The December 2017 Nature Air accident in Costa Rica was one of at least nine accidents in that year which involved variants of the Cessna Caravan. Most were non-fatal, and since the Caravan is one of the most widely used light aircraft in history, with more than 2,500 sold since 1986, there is no suggestion that it is unusually accident-prone.
Floatplanes are widely used for sightseeing flights and transfers worldwide, in destinations as diverse as Australia, Canada, Alaska, Vietnam, Scotland, New Zealand, the Bahamas and the Maldives, where Trans Maldivian Airways operates the world’s largest floatplane fleet.
Meanwhile, land-based light aircraft operate transfers to island resorts off the coasts of Costa Rica and Belize and to remote safari lodges in African destinations such as South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Kenya, and sightseeing flights over natural and man-made wonders such as the Grand Canyon and Peru’s Nazca Lines.
Putting your life on the Lines
The Nazca Lines – enigmatic patterns in the sands of the Ica Desert – can only be seen from the air. They are among the top attractions in a country that isn’t short of the relics of ancient civilisations. They have also become notorious for fatal crashes involving sightseeing planes, says Phil Sylvester of World Nomads
, an Australian insurer which specialises in adventure travel.
“If you take a flight over Nazca, you are putting your life on the line,” he says. “Safety standards have not kept up with demand. Flight companies use planes that are almost as old as the Lines themselves and have a history of cutting corners on maintenance and preparation. The Peruvian Government is inconsistent at best when it comes to enforcing controls.”
In 2010, seven tourists died when a Cessna aircraft operated by Nazca Airlines crashed. The operator had recently changed its name from Aero Ica after five French tourists died when another of its aircraft crashed. In the same year, four British tourists were killed when their sightseeing plane crashed while attempting an emergency landing. In May 2015, four tourists and their pilots were injured when a Cessna 206 sightseeing aircraft, operated by Aero Palcazu, crashed shortly after takeoff.
Standards not implemented
“There are risks involved in flying over the Nazca Lines,” states the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) current advice on Peru, which notes that investigations following accidents and emergencies involving sightseeing planes showed that aircraft safety and maintenance standards were not being implemented. “Though some improvements to operating practices have been made, problems continue to be reported,” continues the FCO website. However, while alerting travellers to the risks, the FCO advisory falls short of advising against flying over Nazca.
Typically, the Fox News report that quoted NTSB ex-chief Hall sought to compare the safety record of small aircraft operators in ‘third world’ countries with commercial operations in the US. But the issue is not confined to the developing world. The US has its own accident black spots.
Alaska’s scenery could hardly be more different from the Peruvian desert, and its coastline and hinterland are even more spectacular. Flightseeing in the 49th state is big business, with floatplanes operating from Anchorage, Fairbanks and almost every Alaska port. Around one million cruise passengers visit the state each year, so cruise lines are the major market for flightseeing operators, and actively promote such excursions to their passengers.
But should they? The US National Transportation Safety Board notes that rugged terrain and rapidly changing weather conditions mean that the risks of flying in Alaska are greater than in the contiguous US states.
In June 2015, all nine people aboard a Promech Air DHC 3T Otter died when the single-engine floatplane went down near Ketchikan, Alaska. All eight passengers on the sightseeing flight were cruise passengers from Holland America Line’s MS Westerdam. Arguably, cruise lines that actively market such flights (and sell them onboard their ships) have a duty of care to warn passengers of the inherent risks – however small – of flying over extreme terrain and in rapidly changing weather in small, single-engined aircraft. But flightseeing is a significant income source for cruise operators. Jim Walker, a Florida-based maritime lawyer, says cruise lines and excursion companies exert ‘tremendous pressure’ on passengers who have booked flightseeing trips to fly even in poor weather. Many excursion policies impose a 100-per-cent cancellation fee if a passenger cancels within three days of sailing.
“I have heard many complaints from Alaskan residents and cruise passengers that excursion planes and helicopters routinely take off in poor weather with very limited visibility,” Walker claims. “Cruise passengers cannot cancel if the weather is bad. This is a policy that places profits over safety and presents consumers with a choice between losing their excursion fare or risking their lives.”
However, cruise lines and other travel operators seem likely to continue promoting flightseeing trips, and travel insurers seem to be relaxed about continuing to cover sightseeing flights and light aircraft resort transfers under standard policies. In general, commercial light aircraft operations are closely regulated worldwide, and so long as aircraft (no matter how old they are) are properly certificated and maintained, it is hard to see how travel insurers could easily exclude them.
“The number of incidents is extremely small,” says Phil Sylvester of World Nomads. “It is insignificant to the level of risk. We see no need to issue a general warning or make changes to premiums or coverage. We will continue to warn travellers about the risks in situations where unusual circumstances warrant (such as the Nazca Lines scenic flights), and urge travellers to use their judgement.”
He added: “This applies equally to any form of transport, and we note a recent incident involving a speedboat in Thailand. It is wise to always ask for a safety briefing (if one is not given) and ask to see where life vests and other safety equipment is kept on-board. If your suspicions are raised it might also be wise to ask to see the provider’s operating license. If none of these things occur, walk away and find another more suitable provider.”