Flying On A Plane Is Safer Than It Has Ever Been

Despite yesterday's tragic events in San Francisco, flying by plane remains the safest way to travel.

Asiana Flight 241

Despite the non-stop coverage that yesterday’s horrific crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 has generated, mostly on cable news outlets, flying by airplane is safer than its ever been:

Cable news is full of coverage of the Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco Airport right now. And it makes sense—a large plane crashing is news. At the same time, it’s worth reiterating that plane crashes are news because they’re so amazingly rare. On a per passenger mile basis, you’re over seventy times likelier to die driving a car.

Yet even though car wrecks (and cars running down bicyclists or pedestrians) are a much larger social risk, they never get this kind of coverage which is a bit of a shame.

That’s from Matthew Yglesias, who also created this chart:

airplane.png.CROP_.rectangle3-large

 

Lydia DePhillips points out that, before yesterday, there had not been a fatality on a U.S. commercial jetliner in four years. This despite the fact that air miles traveled continues to increase year after year. And, this chart shows that fatalities as a whole for jetliners have been far lower than they were 30 years ago:

DePhillps Chart 1

 

And the decline in accidents and fatalities also applies to General Aviation:

DePhillips Chart 2

 

It’s not surprising that events like the crash of Flight 214 get a lot of media attention. For one thing, as the charts above note, they’ve become rare enough, at least in the United States, that they are become immediate attention getters. Second, they provide the cable networks with lots of spectacular footage they can show over and over again. Third, on a slow news weekend they gave those networks something to fill hours of coverage consisting of mostly baseless speculation with. Despite all of that, the reality is that we’re living in an era where it has become far more safer to fly than it has ever been before. That’s thanks both to enormous enhancements in airplane engineering and the things that we learned from those eras in the past when deaths from jetliner accidents were tragically more common. Whether the cause of this accident turns out to be mechanical, the result of pilot error, or something else, we’ll learn something from yesterday’s accident as well, and the industry will adjust accordingly. That’s because, as Ezra Klein notes, they have an incentive to do so:

The Asiana Flight was a nightmare for those aboard. But planes remain extraordinarily, almost unbelievably, safe. That’s in part because plane crashes affect the national psyche — and the airline industry — in a way that car crashes simply don’t. People hear about car crashes and move on with their day. They even move on with plans to buy a new car.

When a plane crashes, it’s covered live on every network — and it can destroy the airline. Remember ValuJet? They sure hope you don’t. After their 1996 crash, they had to merge with a smaller airline and give up their name in order to survive.

The airline industry has an enormous incentive to make sure planes pretty much never crash. Safety checks, training certifications  and equipment redundancies that would strike us as insane if applied to cars are routinely insisted on in planes. And it works. In the United States, at least, planes operated by the major airlines almost never crash.

“Almost never,” of course, doesn’t mean “never,” but it’s pretty darn close. The deaths of two and injury of some 182 is nothing to just ignore, of course. However, it’s worth noting that this plane was able to be evacuated within a matter of minutes, that most everyone on board escaped without injury, and that the circumstances of this crash likely would have been much different had it happened thirty years ago.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Economics and Business
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. PJ says:

    While I totally agree that flying has never been safer, “Fatalities per passenger miles” is a lousy, even dishonest, way to measure safety when it comes to flying.
    Why? Because those fatalities aren’t spread out evenly per mile.
    43% of fatalities occur during taxi,take-off and the climb, and 41% occur during the descent, approach, and landing, and these phases together are a lot shorter than the cruise phase.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The airline industry has an enormous incentive to make sure planes pretty much never crash. Safety checks, training certifications and equipment redundancies that would strike us as insane if applied to cars are routinely insisted on in planes. And it works. In the United States, at least, planes operated by the major airlines almost never crash.

    Gee, I wonder who mandates all those “Safety checks, training certifications and equipment redundancies”???? Oh yeah, the magic hand of the free market.

    I wonder why fewer and fewer people, while still vastly more than in airplanes, die in car accidents every year? It certainly could not be the government mandated seat belts, or structurally sufficient frame members or side air bags, etc, could it now? The free market would have provided all them without gov’t mandates. Would have increased gas mileage too.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Remember ValuJet?

    Remember TWA?*** Remember Delta? Remember American Airlines?

    ***and for the bright ones that want to point out that TWA is no longer in business let me point out that that is because Carl Icahn raided it of all it’s profitable assets which netted him hundreds of millions of dollars in profits while putting thousands of people out of work. Now that’s the free market in action. It’s cheerleaders call it “creative destruction”.

    I call it one greedy SOB making millions while destroying the lives of thousands and who ought to be shot and pi$$ed on. But that’s just me

  4. superdestroyer says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    TWA no longer exist because it was purchase by American Airlines for its routes. What is sad is how the purchase has lead to the downsizing of Lambert. Of course, as the airline industry consolidates, it makes sense that there will be fewer hub airports and that all airlines will cover the entire U.S. No more picking an airline because of the section of the country where one is headed.

  5. JKB says:

    While you are more likely to die in a car, you are less likely to relive your childhood trauma at the hands of your funny uncle, unless you get in a car with your funny uncle.

  6. Jenos Idanian says:

    Similarly, nuclear power has one of the (if not the) best safety records for electricity generation, but still people completely lose their $#!+ when there’s talk of building new plants…

  7. David in KC says:

    @Jenos Idanian: except when a coal plant blows up, the damage is limited, when a nuclear plant has an accident, the damage can cover a much larger area and have years of lasting effects. Of course coal has a long lasting effect on the planet and climate, but it doesn’t make you glow.

  8. ernieyeball says:

    Stastics

    I was listening to ESPN Radio earlier today.
    The rant of the minute was the fact that the arrest rate of NFL players is 1 in 47.
    Apparently Mighty Mouth Brush Lintoff is all bent out of shape about this and has been blustering that something must be done!
    The ESPN Microphone Jockeys then pointed out that the arrest rate of women in this country is 1 in 46!!!
    What, they asked, does The Great Gasbag want to do about that?

    (This is a post about statistics, right?)

  9. JohnMcC says:

    Seeing the headline and scanning the O.P….. I would agree that flying on something other than an airplane is probably more dangerous than flying on a commercial airliner.

  10. superdestroyer says:

    @JohnMcC:

    The government is open in how they regulate risk. If you are being paid for a job, the government assumes that you will accept a higher risk. If the risk is voluntary, such as flying a private plane, the government regulate to a different risk level than it does for commercial aircraft (the same is buses regulated more than cars, ferries regulated more than personal boats).

    There is a study in risk analysis to see how much the U.S. spends to avoid one additional death. For automotive safety, it is not much but for super fund clean up sites, the costs can get into the billions.

  11. PJ says:

    @ernieyeball:
    On the subject of arrest rates of NFL platyer:

    NFL Arrest Database

    and

    also this podcast ep (Which also discusses that issue and not only how much porn there is on the internet…)

  12. JohnMcC says:

    OK, my friend Mr Destroyer, let me make my sacrasm perfectly clear: “Flying on a plane is safer than it has ever been” as compared to — for example — flying on a broomstick or a hot-air balloon.

    Does that help?

  13. Jenos Idanian says:

    @David in KC: True enough. And on September 11, 2001, we saw what can happen when two planes crash (deliberately, admittedly) in an urban area.

    Of, for the worst of both worlds, an airliner could crash into a nuclear power plant…

  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @superdestroyer:

    TWA no longer exist because it was purchase by American Airlines for its routes.

    Sold to them by whom? One Carl Icahn.

  15. superdestroyer says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    According to Wikipedia, Carl Icahn left TWA in 1993 but the sell to TWA occurred after 2000. Do you have a better cite? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans_World_Airlines

  16. There was a hero on Saturday – an airplane from Everett, Washington.

    459 people have been aboard two Boeing 777s for the type’s two crashes, both on final approach. 457 of those people are alive today. In the first crash, the pilots were helpless to save the plane. In the second, the pilots might have been at fault. It was the plane and the technology that saved those aboard in both cases.

    Why is air travel so safe? The men and women of Boeing Commercial Airplanes are a big reason.

  17. anjin-san says:

    For those who don’t think flight attendants should be taken too seriously…

    Eugene Anthony Rah, a 46-year-old hip hop concert producer and naturalized U.S. citizen, snapped this picture with his iPhone, minutes after he evacuated Asiana flight 214.

    After the plane crash landed, he said, the captain went on the loudspeaker and told everyone to get off the plane. One tiny woman, who he said is flight attendant Ji-yeon Kim, stood out to him, because she was helping the injured, “carrying people piggyback” who couldn’t walk. Tears were streaming down her face, he said, as she helped clear the plane only minutes before flames engulfed the passenger cabin.

    He copied her name off her uniform nametag, he said, because “she was a hero.”

    http://blogs.wsj.com/dispatch/2013/07/07/the-story-behind-a-san-francisco-crash-survivors-photo/?mod=e2fb

  18. TheoNott says:

    It’s basic psychology…people are biased toward fear of flying because most do so only occasionally. We drive everywhere, however, so we are inclined to see it as harmless, even though the data says otherwise. The other part of it, I think, is that people are just naturally inclined to be more afraid of something that takes them off the ground. People can be irrational like that. Personally, I’ve never had any fear of planes, but that’s just me.

  19. gVOR08 says:

    @TheoNott: Also, I think a factor in the psychology is that people feel more in control of a car. Because they are, even if badly. In an airplane, you’re just a passenger and feel, correctly, that you have no control over your destiny.

    I don’t fear flying, but having been originally educated as an Aero E, I occasionally have a twinge when it occurs to me that there’s not much between me and the ground except some thin, riveted, fatigue prone aluminum and 30,000 feet of air.

    Doesn’t change the fact that the dangerous part of any commercial flight is from your door to the parking lot and across the access road.

  20. Mr Peabody says:

    …people are just naturally inclined to be more afraid of something that takes them off the ground.

    I think a healthy respect for gravity keeps some people earthbound!

  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @superdestroyer:

    Do you have a better cite?

    Nope. If I feel like it I will look tomorrow. Don’t bank on it tho. I could have been swayed by home town reporting. You may well be right.

  22. anjin-san says:

    gravity

    Hippie science BS. You fallin’ for more of that Al Gore crap?

  23. Mr Peabody says:

    “Don’t be a wise ass. After all I’ve got the Wabac machine. Join me on a trip back to 1953!”
    “1953?”
    “Yes Sherman-San. 1953.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kpgJzlY9y8A

  24. anjin-san says:

    One thing that is becoming clear is that government mandated safety improvements to commercial jetliners saved a lot of lives on this flight.

  25. matt says:

    @David in KC: WEll the thing is the coal plant is producing poison during it’s entire operation. From radioactive fly ash to mercury released in the air coal plants have all kinds of nasty results.

    Check out the Gen IV reactor designs. In specific check out what is going on in the LFTR area and then tell us about how coal is so much better..

  26. Electroman says:

    CRM is the biggest factor in reducing commercial airliner fatalities over the last thirty years. CRM is “Cockpit Resource Management” or “Crew Resource Management”. Yeah, there’s no doubt that the aircraft of today are safer as well. FTR, I have about 5,000 hours as pilot in command, but never at an airline.