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editorial

By this point the world is well accustomed to confident Trumpian pronouncements that crumble swiftly under the gentlest scrutiny.

Last week, the U.S. President added another entry to the canon, claiming credit via social media for an exceptional year in air-travel safety, because "since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation."

Yeah, no. While it's true 2017 was a remarkably safe year – the worldwide number of fatal crashes involving passenger jets was zero – it had nothing to do with Donald Trump.

Air accidents have been in broad decline for more than a decade, despite constant passenger-volume increases (an average of six per cent annually since 2009).

According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, last year the world's airlines carried 3.6-billion passengers and racked up a combined four-trillion kilometres in trips. Depending on the tally, there were between two and 10 fatal accidents involving airplanes (all were small or mid-sized propeller aircraft). Whichever number you choose, it is miraculously small.

So two questions: What is the airline industry doing so well, and how exportable is it to other fields?

Regarding the first question, the key lesson lies in aviation's conception of, and approach to, mistakes. The answer to the second is "very."

British author Matthew Syed, who studied the air industry for his 2015 tome Black Box Thinking, has written that "failure is inevitable in a complex world. The key is to harness these lessons as part of a dynamic process of change."

When disasters happen in the airline industry, "openness and learning, rather than blaming, is the instinctive response." This creates what Mr. Syed calls "forward accountability": the idea that we owe it to future generations not to repeat avoidable mistakes.

In other words, fail better. That mantra has become a tech industry cliché, but the lessons of aviation can be applied to myriad settings. If only politicians like Mr. Trump were so sanguine about deconstructing their own failures.

Today's airline safety measures exist as a result of relentless, sober analysis of past failures, a cold-eyed evaluation of risk, and "tombstone" engineering – innovation spurred by human tragedy. That's how black boxes came about, and flame-retardant fabrics, and modern theories on cockpit management and emergency communications.

Formal, evidence-driven procedures, which are legion in aviation, aren't foolproof, but they cut through complexity and can compensate for wandering human attention and varying levels of competence.

This culture of self-reporting and openness was shepherded along by independent accident investigation agencies and by the raft of government regulations the agencies recommended. The fact is, passenger airline travel is perhaps the most tightly regulated industry in the world, which puts the lie to the simplistic but oft-voiced idea that stringent rules and red tape are inherently bad.

In fact, there hasn't been a fatal crash involving a North American-registered jetliner in almost eight years; the last large-bodied aircraft accident to claim a life on Canadian soil occurred in 1998.

Fatal mishaps are more common among commercial turbo-prop aircraft and in private civil aviation, but statistics from Canada's Transportation Safety Board indicate that the trend arrows have pointed downward on accidents, injuries and deaths since 2007.

The airline industry isn't perfect. Crashes still happen and people are sometimes badly hurt, as more than one survivor of the March 2015 Air Canada crash in Halifax can attest.

Attention to preventive maintenance can vary from company to company, and from country to country. Some discount and regional carriers put famously high demands on pilots, cabin crew and ground staff.

Nor is flying necessarily easy, comfortable or fun. The industry's safety record may be a triumph, but the economics of air transport are unforgiving, and the customer experience has suffered for it.

The good news is 2018 should see the adoption of legislation clearing the way for a full-fledged Passenger Bill of Rights (it is currently held up in the Senate).

It's a complex undertaking but a badly needed and worthwhile one. As befits the industry it will apply to, there are lots of failures to learn from in crafting it.