Flying has never been safer

February 18, 2013

Those fliers who nervously grip the armrests at the slightest bounce of turbulence have undoubtedly thought that, next time, they were taking a boat to their destination.

Of course, after the drifting, multiday horror show of the Carnvial cruise ship Triumph, that option might now be up for a rethink.

But there’s another reason that skittish fliers might want to stay cool when the “Fasten Seat Belt” light comes on – according to a recent report by the Aviation Safety Network, commercial air travel is the safest it has ever been.

According to the study, 2012 was the safest year to fly since 1945, topping 2011, which was the previous record-holder for the safest year. Around the world last year, there were 475 fatalities in 23 separate accidents. That’s fewer than half the fatalities that were recorded in the year 2000, and almost seven times fewer than the 3,214 passengers who died in airplane crashes in 1972, the worst year for commercial air calamities.

The last time there was a fatal commercial crash in the United States was in February 2009, when 49 people were killed in a commuter plane that fell to earth in a Buffalo, N.Y. suburb, apparently due to errors by an inexperienced pilot. The crashes that resulted in deaths last year happened on regional airlines in places like Kazakhstan, Nigeria and Pakistan, where they use older planes and regulations are not as refined as they are in the United States and other parts of the developed world.

A professor of statistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told The New York Times last week that the risk of dying onboard a flight in the U.S. was 1 in 45 million. Put another way, you could get onboard a plane every day for 123,000 years before you’d get in a fatal accident. If you’re traveling by air, there’s an old saw that the most dangerous part of the journey is the drive to the airport, and statistics also bear this out – you’re 200 times more likely to perish in an auto accident than onboard a plane.

The reason for the steep decline in airplane deaths over the last decade can apparently be credited to a shift toward proactive accident prevention among airlines, regulators and pilots and advances in engineering. Lessons have been learned from the mishaps of the past and applied to everyday practices.

The engines that keep planes aloft are much more reliable today, and the planes themselves are more structurally sound. Onboard technology steers pilots away from potential midair collisions, and allows them to avoid the roughest forms of turbulence and navigate more confidently in less-than-optimum conditions.

The key question is whether the decrease in air-travel fatalities is the “new normal” or if this is a mere interregnum before the numbers start to increase again. Despite escalating ticket costs and wallet-draining fees, more and more people are expected to fly in the decades ahead, and more and more planes will be in the sky. Making sure everyone gets back on the ground without a scratch will surely demand constant vigilance.

Chesley B. Sullenberger, the heroic U.S. Airways pilot who landed a plane in New York’s Hudson River after both engines sputtered out in 2009 put it well: “… It may be that we are doing some things right, but not everything. We can’t relax.”

But passengers settling into their seats can. And that’s news that both frequent and not-so-frequent fliers should welcome.



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