By Avi Davis
The news for the airline industry does not appear to be good. Three major airline crashes – and one a disappearance without any trace – attracted worldwide attention this year and have made travelers nervous.
Indeed the global record this year would seem to present an alarming trend: if are no survivors on the AirAsia Airbus 320 jet flying from Surabaya in Indonesia to Singapore, 2014 will have been the worst year for air travel since 2005. Asia has borne the brunt, with 537 people lost on two Malaysia Airlines flights – MH370 , which disappeared on March 8, and MH17, shot down by a missile over Ukraine on July 17. A Transasia Airways crash in Taiwan on July 23 claimed another 48 lives. While there are more than 50,000 flights around the world each day, with no report of malfunction or distress for any of them, it might appear that things are getting worse for airline travel, not better.
Is it then safe to travel on airplanes?
Dr. Arnold Barnett, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has done extensive research in the field of commercial flight safety. He found that over the 35 years between 1975 and 2010, the death risk per flight was one in seven million. This statistic is the probability that someone who randomly selected one of the airline’s flights over the 19-year study period would be killed in route. That means that any time you board a flight on a major carrier in this country, your chance of being in a fatal accident is one in seven million. It doesn’t matter whether you fly once every three years or every day of the year.
In fact, based on this incredible safety record, if you did fly every day of your life, probability indicates that it would take you nineteen thousand years before you would succumb to a fatal accident.
Perhaps you have occasionally taken the train for your travels, believing that it would be safer. Think again. Based on train accidents over the past twenty years, your chances of dying on a transcontinental train journey are one in a million. Those are great odds, mind you. But flying coast-to-coast is ten times safer than making the trip by train.
How about driving, our typical form of transportation? There are approximately one hundred and thirty people killed daily in auto accidents. That’s every day — yesterday, today and tomorrow. And that’s forty-seven thousand killed per year.
In 1990, five hundred million airline passengers were transported an average distance of eight hundred miles, through more than seven million takeoffs and landings, in all kinds of weather conditions, with a loss of only thirty-nine lives. During that same year the National Transportation Safety Board’s report shows that over forty-six thousand people were killed in auto accidents. A sold-out 727 jet would have to crash every day of the week, with no survivors, to equal the highway deaths per year in this country.
Dr. Barnett of MIT compared the chance of dying from an airline accident versus a driving accident, after accounting for the greater number of people who drive each day. Can you guess what he found? You are nineteen times safer in a plane than in a car. Every single time you step on a plane, no matter how many times you fly, you arenineteen times less likely to die than in your car.
The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 permitted the airlines to be competitive both in the routes they flew and the fares they charged. When the price of air travel decreased, the number who flew increased. In 1977, two hundred and seventy million passengers flew on U.S. scheduled airlines. In 1987 four hundred and fifty million flew. For passengers, that resulted in the frustration of crowded terminals and delayed boardings and takeoffs. But did deregulation cause safety to be compromised? Definitely not!
Accident statistics provided by the National Transportation Safety Board show that — despite a fifty percent increase in passengers during the ten years after deregulation — there was a forty percent decrease in the number of fatal accidents and a twenty-five percent decrease in the number of fatalities, compared to the ten years before deregulation.
If you are going to worry about dying, there are many more probable ways to die than on a commercial jet. Take a look at the chart below, which shows the chance of fatalities on a commercial flight compared to other causes of death in the United States. Notice that you are more likely to die from a bee sting than from a commercial flight. The number one killer in the United States is cardiovascular disease, with about eight hundred and eighty-five thousand deaths per year. Each of us has about a fifty percent (50%) chance of dying of cardiovascular disease. Whenever we fly, we have a one one-hundred-thousandth of one percent (.000014%) chance of dying
|DEATH BY: YOUR ODDS
Sources: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California at Berkeley
How about accidental deaths? In the chart below you can compare the average number of airline fatalities per year (not including commuter airlines) from 1981 to 1994 with the most recent figures for other forms of accidental death. Again, you can see that flying is relatively insignificant compared to other causes of death.
Number of Accidental Deaths Per Year By Cause
SOURCES: Bureau of Safety Statistics, National Transportation Safety Board
I’m not trying to encourage you to become afraid of your bicycle or of walking down the stairs in your home. My most important point is that no one can anticipate all of your questions about flight safety and the airline industry. You may have specific questions about maintenance or security or pilot error that are not simple to address. Regardless of your worries, you are putting your life in the hands of an industry with a record of dedicating its creative intelligence to your safety. And the Federal Aviation Administration, the air traffic controllers, the airline companies, the pilots, the flight attendants, the mechanics, the manufacturers have striven every year to make flight safer than the year before.
And that’s not by accident: The airline industry has continued to improve safety standards for both planes and broader flight protocols, ensuring that we almost always get from point A to point B without any real trouble, much less danger. You have a one-in-11 million chance of being killed in an airplane crash, meaning you’re much more likely to be eaten by a shark, or as some airline executives claim, more likely to die in the airport — and certainly while driving there — than on the plane itself.
None of this is a comfort to those who lost loved ones in the major airline disasters of this year. Fate had singled them out to be on a particular plane at a particular time and there was nothing they or their family could have done to alter what became of them. Yet, we would be foolish to begin regarding airplane travel as unsafe or prone to fatal accidents. It is simply not the case and rather than demonstrating this nervousness we should be extolling this remarkable industry whose record of safety has enabled us to see countries and experience pleasures not dreamed of by our ancestors.