How Safe Are Airplanes Really?

Over the span of 138 days in 2014, more than 700 airline passengers and flight crew died in air disasters. In March, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing with 239 aboard. On July 17, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine; all 298 aboard died. July 23rd’s crash of TransAsia Airways Flight 222 in Taiwan killed 48, and Air Algerie Flight 5017 crashed over Mali, killing 116, on July 24.


Keeping the Bigger, Safer Airplane Picture in Mind

Despite these seemingly endless air disasters and the wall-to-wall media hype that surrounded them, 2014 was one of the airline industry’s safest years ever. According to the Aviation Safety Network, 2014 saw 20 crashes with 692 fatalities (excluding military transport accidents and hijackings). 2014 had one of the lowest accident rates on record. You have to go back to 1942, with 21 crashes, to find a number as low.

In 2013, out of approximately 32 million airline departures, there were 90 commercial airplane accidents, only nine of which involved fatalities, with a total loss of 173 lives. Translation: less than one flight in 300,000 experienced an accident, and only one in 3,000,000 involved fatalities.

Traveling by motorcycle is 3,000 times more deadly than flying. Transport by car or truck is about 100 times more dangerous, and train is twice as deadly. After the 9/11 air tragedies, many Americans decided to drive instead of fly, feeling safer on the ground — more in control of their fate. While airlines saw a nearly 20 percent decrease in passenger miles, the U.S. roads saw an increase in car accidents.

Professor Gerd Gigerenzer, a German academic specializing in risk, estimated that an additional 1,595 Americans died in car accidents during the year after the 9/11 tragedies. Professor Gigerenzer chalked it up to our inability to realistically assess danger when flooded with fear:

“We have an evolutionary tendency to fear situations in which many people die at one time. This is likely a hold-over from when we lived in small groups, where the death of a small part of the group could place the lives of everyone else in jeopardy.”


Airplanes : A Safety Reality Check

For those one-third of all flyers who are the white-knucklers, the “I need a valium/drink NOW”, semi-control freaks who tremble at the final boarding call, here are some facts from to help you start “trusting the airline industry”:

  • A pilot with a major airline receives training that lasts as long, and costs as much, as a physician’s.
  • For every hour spent in the air, that commercial aircraft you’re riding in receives approximately 12 hours of maintenance on the ground.
  • Each plane flies within its own private air space path that is 10 miles wide.
  • Air traffic controllers train for approximately four years, and the amount of work versus break time they are allowed during each eight-hour shift is closely monitored.
  • Nearly every system on the airplane has at least one back up system ready to step in if the primary system fails.

It’s too soon to say what 2015’s skies will bring, but the March 24th crash in France of Germanwings flight 4U9525 that killed all 150 on board has been credited to intentional actions by the copilot. This surely gives the white-knucklers even more reasons to tighten their grips.




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