Recent headline-producing aircraft accidents may have caused you to ask the question, “Just how safe is commercial air travel today?” Hundreds of deaths in a single accident are a characteristic of modern commercial air tragedies and today’s media certainly takes advantage, as quickly as possible, of these “breaking news” events. We all are shocked as we read and hear about these incidents and so it’s reasonable to investigate the potential of the same tragic fate for each of us. So, statistically speaking, just how likely are we to perish in a commercial airline accident?

aircraft in sky
Image Credit: Steve Halama

I used my “Google” powers to investigate the odds of death by plane. The most recent information I found is a compilation of data from the National Center for Health Statistics conducted by the National Safety Council for the year 2017. The numbers below show the odds of death by xxx over a lifetime for the average individual.

Death by: Odds
Heart Disease 1 in 6
Cancer 1 in 7
Motor Vehicle Crash 1 in 103
Choking on Food 1 in 2,696
Bicyclist 1 in 4,047
Cataclysmic Storm 1 in 31,394
Passenger on an Airplane 1 in 188,364

Note that for this last category, “Passenger on an Airplane,” the NSC was not specific as to whether or not this included passengers on general aviation flights which would, of course, increase the odds of death over a category that was limited to passengers on commercial airliners only. My Google search found other data (from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California at Berkeley) that indicates your chances of death on any single commercial airline flight are about 1 in 7,000,000!
I know! I know! Your response to me is that it really doesn’t matter what the odds are if you are THAT ONE. However, what the odds do show is that our energy is better spent watching what we eat, being careful in autos and on bikes, and being selective about vacation destinations during hurricane season than it is avoiding airplane travel.

Why is airplane travel so safe? There are several reasons, but the most significant one may be that the legal and safety oversight systems developed around commercial air travel are extremely specific and stringent. No other form of transportation is as highly scrutinized, investigated and regulated as commercial aviation and it only gets more so as time marches on. Julie O’Donnell, a Boeing spokesperson, says that fatal accidents occurred once every 200,000 flight hours in the 50’s and 60’s. Now, it’s once every 2,000,000 flight hours. While advanced oversight plays a large role in that order of magnitude increase in safety, some other reasons for this huge improvement follow:
• Better and more extensive aircraft testing—structures, engine foreign object ingestion, operation at severe temperatures and altitudes, brakes, lightning strikes, etc.

• Computer aided design and testing simulations

• Additional and improved redundant on board aircraft systems—electrics, hydraulics, fuel, etc.

• Improved structural materials and construction methods

• The development of radar and anti-collision and ground proximity warning systems

• Advanced simulator training and more stringent experience requirements for pilots

• Vastly improved maintenance methods and predictive processes

• Advances in gas turbine engine reliability—the odds of experiencing an inflight shut down of a modern engine on a commercial flight are on the order of 1 in 1 million flight hours……and you will still have at least one engine to continue the flight! (Commercial airplanes are designed to fly and handle well with the loss of an engine.)

We could easily expand any of the topics above to ease air travel anxiety by improving passenger knowledge. In fact, if additional knowledge can improve comfort for the flying public, Practical Aeronautics can help. Our “Intro to……” courses, “Intro to Aero”, “Intro to Aircraft Systems,” and “Intro to Jet Engines,” are designed to provide the foundational knowledge that can help anyone understand and appreciate the inherent safety built into modern aircraft. These courses use a building block approach to explain how aircraft function and operate and focus on physical rather than mathematical explanations of aeronautical theory. The courses are team taught by award winning instructors and highly experienced aircrew so attendees get the academic and the operational perspectives. If it’s knowledge that will ease your mind with respect to air travel, I’m prescribing a dose of our courses!

My parting comments? If you want to beat the odds, eat healthy, don’t smoke, and drive safely!! (Oh……and you might want to learn the Heimlich maneuver!)

Craig Seymour, President, Practical Aeronautics