This year hasn’t been the best for aircraft accidents and many have started to openly question whether flying is still safe. It’s always touted as the safest form of transport, but is that really the case? With the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370/MAS370) on route to China, the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17/MAS17) over Ukraine, and the latest crash involving Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501 (QA8501/AWQ8501), one could be forgiven for thinking that maybe air safety isn’t as good as it’s claimed to be. For me there is only one way to find out, and that it to look at the stats. You might also want to have a read of why you are 10 times more likely to be killed flying with some airlines.
I started off my looking at the annual number of deaths due to airline accidents and it seems pretty obvious from those figures that airline safety is in fact much safer these days than it has been the past. This Wikipedia page shows annual deaths between 1999 and 2013. Between 1999 and 2010 the number of deaths per year was over 1,000 every year except for 3. That compares to 6 years out of the last 10 having less than 1,000 deaths. The last three years 2011-2013 all had less than 1,000 deaths, with 2103 having the lowest number of deaths since World War II, at 265. So over the years, airline safety has been steadily improving.
Next I wanted to compare the above with deaths due to road accidents. According to this Wikipedia page, the number of traffic-related road deaths during 2010 was estimated at 1.24 million, which is slightly down on the 1.26 million estimate for 2000. So for 2010, that’s a staggering 3,397 traffic-related deaths per day. To put that into perspective, the recent AirAsia crash caused 162 deaths. So every single day (on average), the number of deaths on the roads is equivalent to over 20 AirAsia crashes. The total deaths on the road are equivalent to more than 7,600 AirAsia crashes every year.
Just sit back and think about that for a few moments.
Imagine if 20 planes crashed every day. If that was the case I think the vast majority of people would give up flying. But that’s exactly what’s happening on the roads, yet people are more than happy to travel by road. So why is it that so many question air safety but never mention road safety? I think it’s almost all down to the way it’s reported in the media.
A couple of decades ago a plane crash would be reported in the newspaper one day and then you’d likely never hear about it again, so it was quickly forgotten. These days, events like this are reported live and the reporting drags on for as long as people are interested, which is often days of weeks. If you see this reported every day, then of course it will start to seem scary. But the tragedy is that many news outlets prefer sensational headlines over balanced reporting.
Personally I’m still very confident that air travel is a very safe form of transport. Just a quick look at the stats shows that airline safety is improving and that it is light years ahead of road safety. Looking at the figures for road traffic safety, my only surprise is that people aren’t terrified of traveling by road.