Is Airplane Safety Getting Worse?

There has been a string of high-profile airplane disasters over the last year or 2, resulting in it being a regular topic in the media. The dominant story is that of the disappearance of MH370. Just 4 months later the same airline suffered another disaster when MH17 was shot down over Ukraine and further fatal accidents in the year since then have caused many to question airplane safety.

Is safety getting worse or has it been an unlucky couple of years? I seek to explore the statistics and answer these questions.

The number of accidents and fatalities

Accidents and Fatalities3

This is the basic place to start the analysis. Unfortunately we don’t have statistics for the whole of 2015 yet, but it seems that 2014 is perceived as the anomaly in most people’s minds so we can look at that.
The number of fatalities in 2014 (691) was indeed high compared to the previous few years, but 537 of them came in just 2 accidents (MH370 and MH17) and the number of fatal accidents (20) was a record low for over 70 years.

Since the 1970s, there is a clear downward trend in the number of fatalities and accidents. Given that the number of accidents in general is not large and the number of fatalities per accident can vary wildly, this trend can often get hidden by seemingly anomalous years. Thankfully a simple look at the graph above confirms that there’s no need to worry about the overall trend.

One might think there should always have been a downward trend including in the early years of aviation, yet we see that from 1942 to 1970 there is an obvious increase in incidents and fatalities. Thankfully this doesn’t mean that everyone was getting more careless for 30 years, because it is easily explained by the change in the number of flights and number of passengers.

How the change in air traffic affects the statistics

Passenger Trends3

The statistics for the number of passengers and distance travelled are not easily available, but from a number of sources I’ve found a few useful figures to get a rough idea. In 1950 there were 31 million passenger journeys, and this increased more than 100-fold to 3.3 billion in 2014. The average journey distance has also doubled in that time, meaning that total passenger kilometres travelled increased 200-fold from 28 billion in 1950 to 6 trillion in 2014.

Let’s see what happens to the safety records when we take into account this huge increase in plane usage

Accidents and Fatalities per Passenger Kilometre3

This graph demonstrates that over the last 70 years, safety has increased by gigantic proportions. So much that we need to zoom in on the last 20 years to see the recent trend.

Accidents and Fatalities per Passenger Kilometre Zoomed3

Even looking at the last 20 years, the downward trend is very obvious. The relatively high casualties of 2014 suddenly don’t seem like an issue at all, because clearly safety is still improving massively.

Over the last 5 years, one person died every 9.5 billion kilometres flown. That’s the equivalent of flying from New York to London 1.7 million times. Feel any safer now?

Other modes of transport

Just to put your minds at ease once and for all, let’s compare to other modes of transport. To gather these statistics I found as many figures as possible from different sources and took an average

Modes of Transport3

Airplanes are clearly an extremely safe way to travel a given distance. Of course you tend to travel larger distances by plane but if you want to get somewhere then a plane is the best choice by far.

While around 1.24 million people die in road accidents every year, less than 1000 die in airplane accidents. All the statistics say that stepping into a car is more risky than stepping into a plane. In fact, if the statistic were available you’d probably find that getting to the airport and navigating through the terminal is more dangerous than the flight itself.

Why are we so scared then?

  1. The media. Every plane crash is huge news, even if nobody dies. A car crash won’t make it to the bottom of the website unless it involves at least 5 cars and 10 deaths. This results in a huge misrepresentation the relative dangers.
  2. Travelling faster feels more dangerous. The faster you go, the harder a vehicle is to control (not really true in planes) and any crash is much worse.
  3. The feeling of helplessness. A plane is a life support machine once we’re mid-flight and we need it to survive, which causes us to believe that there must be a greater risk. Fortunately this machine is incredibly reliable.

I hope you’re all a bit more reassured about plane safety now, and just remember that although there will be fatal crashes in the news occasionally, each year hippos kill 3 times more people than planes do.