Many recognise the aviation industry as leading the field when it comes to transport safety. Accident investigation bodies (e.g., Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) in the UK and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in the United States), prioritise accident prevention without apportioning blame or liability.
Identifying cause(s) is essential but the biggest safety improvements may be indirect. For example, recommending the use of smoke hoods if removing the risk of fire is considered impractical. Investigators suggest ways to improve air travel safety to regulatory bodies like the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in the UK and Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) in the United States. Their responsibilities have conflicted in the past. On the one hand, making air travel safer, and on the other, supporting the business of civil aviation by keeping it affordable to the masses. Some safety recommendations may represent significant additional costs and prove counterintuitive to an industry where margins are already tight.
Given the potential for loss of life and the prominence of human error in air crashes, whether by the flight crew, air traffic controller, maintenance engineer or regulator, it is surprising that not all recommendations are automatically accepted, even if it should mean safer travel.
One example was the introduction of flight data and cockpit voice recorders, which have been crucial to crash investigations since the late 1960s. Initial resistance to their installation was due to the cost to the airline industry and flight crew objections regarding them as spies on the flight deck. The authorities only mandated the installation of flight data and cockpit voice recorders after further accidents and considerable loss of life. They have since become a vital piece of safety equipment and undoubtedly saved thousands of lives.
Ironically, the most significant advances in aviation safety have been by-products of changes introduced for completely unrelated reasons. The 1950s saw jet-powered airliners enter service, primarily to reduce travel time and improve economy. As they gradually replaced less reliable piston engines, air safety also increased. The introduction of jet-powered airliners improved air safety more than any other single change to aircraft design and construction.
Fire had been another major risk due to the flammability of the gasoline used to power the piston engines. Incidence of fire decreased with increased jet engine use as the fuel used was less flammable than that required by piston engines. JP4, the fuel that replaced gasoline, was still quite flammable and dangerous in a crash. The transition to even less explosive but more expensive Jet A1, a type of Kerosene, only occurred as individual airlines experienced operational fires or as the price came down because of large scale military use due to its superior safety characteristics in combat aircraft.