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How Safe Is Air Travel?

Unless you’ve avoided television and the Internet entirely over the past few years, it has been almost impossible not to be aware of the recent dramatic and tragic airplane crashes. From the still-mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 to the deliberate crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 by a pilot, the details of each crash are unsettling and full of sorrow and heartbreak. It’s enough to make even seasoned travelers wonder if flying is getting steadily less safe.

Although the past few years have featured a few high-profile crashes, if you take the long view it becomes clear that the airline industry actually has a very good safety record — and it’s getting better, not worse.

How Safe Is Flying? A Look at the Numbers

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), in 2015 there was one commercial jet accident per 4.5 million flights. This was in line with 2014, when the number was one accident per 4.4 million flights, and better than 2013 (one accident per 2.4 million flights).

In 2015, there were just four fatal accidents with a total of 136 fatalities. (Note that the Germanwings crash and a suspected terrorist attack on Metrojet Flight 9268 are not included in these stats because they were judged not to be accidents; these add an additional 374 deaths.) Compare that to the period from 2010 through 2014, which had an average of 17.6 fatal accidents and 504 fatalities per year.

In 2015 the 510 total fatalities were out of more than 3.5 billion journeys. For perspective, reports that on average you would need to fly every day for 55,000 years in order to be involved in a fatal crash.

An article in the Wall Street Journal lays out the trend toward tremendously improved safety very clearly (a paywall applies). In fact, older travelers may be taken aback a bit by the risk they survived in the past; one of the most powerful stats noted in the WSJ article states that if we had the same accident rate today as in 1973, there would be a fatal crash every other day.

Some other critical stats to help you get over your fear of being in a plane crash:

– The crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 was the first major crash in Western Europe since 2008.

– The Germanwings aircraft was an Airbus 320; with 3,673 of these aircraft in operation worldwide, assuming each plane flies once daily (many do more than one flight), there should be a 320 taking off or landing every 11 – 12 seconds. At that kind of frequency, one crash is a very low number.

– Know that almost 96 percent of passengers involved in plane crashes make it out alive, according to the ABC News story linked above, and some fatalities could be prevented if passengers knew what to do.

The Comparative Safety of Flying

Driving is the obvious first comparison, and the National Safety Council notes that your odds of dying in a motor vehicle crash are 1 in 112. Your odds of dying in a plane crash? 1 in 96,566.

The National Safety Council offers these odds on other methods of dying, all of which are significantly more likely to happen than being killed in a plane crash:

– Being assaulted by a firearm: 1 in 358
– Being electrocuted: 1 in 12,200
– Walking down the street: 1 in 704
– Falling: 1 in 144
– Overdosing on a prescription painkiller: 1 in 234

Further, airline safety experts believe that the industry is likely to maintain and even improve these statistics as technology improves, older fleets are replaced and developing regions such as parts of Asia strive to match the air safety record of Europe and the United States.

Overcome Your Fear of Flying

Limit — or at least understand the effects of — media exposure. Psychologists speak a lot about the “availability heuristic,” which is a term that explains how the more easily we can remember something, the more common we think that type of event is. The barrage of media coverage imprints an aircraft accident on our minds, increasing our sense of the danger involved — while the majority of automobile fatalities go unreported.

Trust pilot training. The training of a commercial pilot is rigorous on a level that few other occupations require — far more rigorous than that of police officers, firefighters and other safety-oriented professions. Add the fact that many professional pilots learned to handle a plane by flying upside down and sideways in the Air Force, and you are in darn good hands.

Don’t worry about the unlikeliest scenarios. The Germanwings crash would not have occurred in the U.S., where there must be at least two crewmembers in the cockpit at all times. Other countries and airlines scrambled to adopt similar regulations after the Germanwings incident, making it unlikely that this type of tragedy would happen again.

Understand the extent of flight oversight. Even when there are issues with a specific pilot, air traffic control is a very active participant in the minute-to-minute conduct of a flight.

Be prepared. If you still can’t rest easy knowing that the numbers are overwhelmingly on your side, perhaps having a plan will help you; read How to Survive a Plane Crash to prepare for the worst.

Realize You Are Not Being Silly

There are a bunch of good reasons many of us remain wary of air travel, and none of them is “because we are idiots.” For one, it is not so long ago that air travel was indeed pretty dangerous — the 1973 stats cited above are well within the memory of many of our readers, and going back even further, things get only worse. For many decades air travel really wasn’t so safe.

Second, studies of various types of fear have largely concluded that the fear of any activity or possibility is rarely overcome by reading statistics and lots of rational thought. Rather, our deep inclination toward self-preservation takes over, and it can be nearly impossible to turn that off. Even if we know that flying is safer than taking a bath, and even if we’re aware of some of the stats and the effect of media amplification, it is still hard not to wonder if it’s really safe to fly.

So I will offer the single most effective tactic I have ever offered to a fellow flier (an Olympic athlete who was so scared of flying she was nearly hugging me): Look to the leaders of the team, the flight attendants and pilots.

These folks choose to do this every day, as their job. They get up early, put on work clothes, have a quick breakfast, commute to work — and then, as routinely as many of us go to the office and boot up the computer, get on a long-haul plane. Look at their faces. They are not scared or nervous — it’s just another day on the job. If they’re not worried that their 55,000 years are up, why should we be?

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