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Air-Travel Safety: Where Are We?

“How safe is air travel?” The relentless media obsession with the mystery of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 again focuses attention on the broad question of airline safety. And despite the apparent tragic fate of the flight 370 passengers, last week’s release of safety data by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) shows that air travel, overall, is incredibly safe. Among the highlights for 2013:

  • The number of “hull loss” accidents—that is, accidents in which an airliner was heavily damaged—was less than one per 1 million flights in most regions of the world.
  • In North America, the hull-loss rate was 0.32 per million flights; it was 0.15 in Europe, and 0 in North Asia.
  • The only regions where the hull-loss rates were substantially higher, both at about 2.0, were Africa and the Commonwealth of Independent States.
  • Total worldwide fatalities from accidents on commercial airlines were 210, down from 414 in 2013, amounting to less than six per 1 million flights.
  • The most common accidents were due to “runway excursions” where an airplane encountered a problem during takeoff or landing, and less than 10 percent of these accidents result in fatalities.
  • Eight accidents resulted from loss of control during flight—presumably that’s also what happened to Malaysia flight 370—and they accounted for more than half the fatalities.
  • Most of the other fatalities resulted from “controlled flight into terrain,” or CFIT, usually occurring during approach and landing; mostly flights on non-precision approaches.

In the United States, the figures are even better. Accident data for 2012, not available yet for 2013, show a risk of about two per 1 million flights. And no commercial airline fatalities were reported at all for U.S. airlines in 2013. By comparison, the U.S. suffers almost 3,000 motor vehicle fatalities per year, and even train travel is less safe than airline travel.

An outstanding safety record isn’t a matter of luck. The aviation industry—airlines, airplane and equipment manufacturers, and the governments that regulate safety matters—work very hard to make flying safe. Due to the extreme diligence of the investigations, almost every fatal airline accident is a one-off event: Typically, the investigating authorities positively discover the cause of an accident and notify the industry—airframe manufacturer, airlines, air traffic controllers, and other stakeholders—to change products/procedures/systems in such a way as to avoid any subsequent occurrence. Only occasionally, although possibly in the case of flight 370, do investigations fail to arrive at a definitive conclusion as to cause.

This is not to say that you can blithely ignore safety announcements and requirements. Although loss-of-control accidents are rarely survivable, some CFIT and many runway excursion accidents are. And the best way to increase your odds of survival is to get out of the airplane as quickly as you can. That means being aware of the exit locations, as the announcement says. And it also means leaving your carry-on under your seat and in the overhead bins. Lots of industry observers were appalled so see videos of travelers on that ANA 777 that had the very hard landing at San Francisco schlepping their carry-on baggage when they exited the plane.

The only time you might legitimately worry about safety is if you’re considering an air trip within the CIS or in sub-Sahara Africa. Even though accident rates in those areas are coming down, they’re still considerably higher than in the rest of the world. But then, road travel in those areas isn’t exactly a walk in the park, either.

The final conclusion is that moving around is inherently a bit less safe than staying in one place. But the safety case is similar to “saving” money. Just as the best way to save money on travel is to stay home, so the best way to avoid airline or highway accidents is also to stay home. But flying is a close second.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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