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How Safe Is Air Travel? The Statistical Truth

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Despite the occasional heavy turbulence, I’ve always felt safe while flying, though I know plenty of people feel less at ease in the air. While you can’t always reason with your anxieties, there’s a case to be made for why flying is one of the safest things you can do. Today, TPG Senor Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele explains.

Over the last year, four high profile disasters have damaged our trust in the safety of air travel. First, there were the two lost Malaysia Airlines 777s, one due to an errant missile fired from a war zone, the other due to circumstances that are still unclear. Then came the AirAsia crash, as well as the recent loss of a TransAsia plane in Taiwan.

Albert Bartlett famously said that “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function,” and I think something similar could be said for our inability to assess risk. Much has been made previously of the relative safety of air travel compared to, for example, getting behind the wheel of your own car. So rather than attempt to restore your faith in airline safety by comparing flying to other forms of transportation, I wanted to look at how air travel compares to the risks we face in everyday life.

Looking at air transportation as a system 

It’s easy to think of airplanes as a mode of transportation, but the aircraft itself is just one part of a wider air transportation system that includes airline operations, maintenance, crews, airports, security, weather services, and the air traffic control system. So when we consider the safety of air travel, we have to look separately at different countries and regions. While aviation consists of private and military aircraft, for now let’s look only at commercial airlines.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Commercial aviation as a whole is a very safe means of transportation. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Aviation safety in the world as a whole

According to the Aviation Safety Network, there were 990 fatalities from 21 accidents in 2014. 2013 produced 265 fatalities in 29 accidents, and 2012 had 475 fatalities worldwide from 23 accidents. So yes, last year was a bad year in terms of total fatalities, but there were actually the fewest fatal accidents in modern history. Also, 537 of these fatalities were from the two Malaysia tragedies, one of which was an act of war, and the other may or may not turn out to meet the definition of an accident.

The point is that (last year aside) the number of fatalities attributed to air travel has been declining rapidly over the past 30 years. Considering that the number of flights and passenger miles has increased nearly as quickly, the actual rate of fatalities continues to fall dramatically, by any measure. To simplify the data, there are now approximately three times as many passenger miles flown as there were 30 years ago, but about one half the number of fatalities, on average.

Out of the 30 million commercial flights in 2014, there were 21 fatal accidents, which means that you had a 0.000007 chance of being onboard any one of those flights, or roughly 1 in 1.43 million. If you are a very frequent flier and you boarded 100 flights last year, your chances were about one in 14,300 that one of those flights would experience a fatality, although not necessarily that you would be one of those fatalities. For a more typical traveler who takes 10 flights a year, that risk declines to about one in 142,000.

Aviation safety in the United States

The risks of airline travel around the world are very small, but the numbers look really good if you board a scheduled passenger airliner in the United States. Since September 11, 2001, there have been four commercial aircraft accidents in the United States that have resulted in fatalities. That means that in nine of the past 13 years, the odds of being involved in an accident that included a fatality have been zero.

The last fatal airline accident in the United States was Asiana Airlines Flight 214 which crashed in San Francisco on July 6, 2013. It resulted in three fatalities out of 307 passengers and crew on board. Prior to that, the last accident was the February 12, 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 near Buffalo, New York, which resulted in the deaths of all 50 people on board.

Loyal, loving, and statistically more likely to kill you than your next commercial flight. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Some perspective

Without minimizing the tragic loss of even a single life as a result of any airline crash, I would still argue that you are safer onboard a commercial airplane in the United State than you are at virtually any point in your entire life. For example, there have been between 30,000 and 35,000 motor vehicle fatalities every year in the United States since 2009, which compares very poorly against the three commercial aviation deaths.

Other common causes of death each year that vastly exceed aviation include:

Even some pretty unusual and remote dangers pose a greater risk than domestic air travel, including:

Hopefully those numbers aren’t making you suddenly afraid of lightning and bears, and are instead illustrating just how safe air travel is. Considering that the fatality rate from commercial airplane accidents in the United States has averaged less than one per year over the last five years, I’m confident in saying that you’re in more danger basically anywhere you go than you are while sitting aboard a commercial aircraft in the United States. Virtually any form of transportation, any sport, and any activity is riskier than being on an airliner.

And its not just relatively common risks like falling, being poisoned, or being murdered that become nearly impossible on an airplane; even your risk of extremely unlikely events, such as lightning strikes and bear attacks decreases to zero within the confines of an airliner. To be blunt, you’re more exposed to actual risk of death while sitting in your own home than you are during air travel in the United States.

US airlines have an exceptional safety record.

Choosing safe airlines

It’s impossible to distinguish between the safety records of US airlines, since accident rates of domestic carriers are vanishingly small. Outside the United States, the risk becomes significant enough to make distinctions among carriers, especially within the developing world. To see how safe an individual airline is, you can browse the airline safety ratings of hundreds of airlines at AirlineRatings.com, which offers a simple seven star ratings system that compiles ratings from the FAA, European Union, and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

It’s human nature to be fearful in response to highly publicized tragedies, but we need not rely solely on our emotions to protect ourselves. By examining the actual risks of air travel, you can understand how truly safe it is and rest easy on your next flight.

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