It wasn’t a great start of the year for aviation safety, with a runway collision at Tokyo’s Haneda airport and a door plug blowing out in mid-air from an Alaska Airlines 737 Max 9 making headlines within days of each other, and with four more fatal accidents involving regional and business aircraft in the following weeks.
Boeing, the maker of the 737, has been particularly under scrutiny once it emerged that the blowout was due to manufacturing problems, and some travelers are now actively choosing to avoid booking flights on Max 9 aircraft.
Understandably, anxiety around flying is hitting a high – but is there any reason for concern?
“I don’t believe that you should be worried,” says Geoffrey Thomas, an aviation safety expert and editor in chief of Airline Ratings, which publishes an annual list of the safest airlines.
“Certainly Boeing has had some production problems, which they’re working their way through, and it’s not a good look. But the bottom line is that there are so many checks in place now that I don’t believe anybody should be concerned.
“I would certainly not have any hesitation on getting on board a Boeing aircraft.”
The 737, Thomas adds, still has a better safety record than the 747.
“And nobody would ever hesitate to get on board a 747,” he says. “One of the things about aviation, as time goes by, is that manufacturers and airlines learn from their mistakes, and put systems in place to ensure they don’t make them again. So statistically, over time, flying gets safer and safer and safer.”
In a recent analysis, Airline Ratings identified a list of aircraft that can be considered the safest to fly on, having never suffered any accident with fatalities.
Among them are the Boeing 787 and 777-300ER, and the Airbus A220, A320neo and A380.
The list of the world’s safest airlines is topped by Air New Zealand, Qantas, Virgin Australia, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Emirates, All Nippon Airways, Finnair and Cathay Pacific.
Safer than driving
“Aviation is the safest mode of transportation,” says Anthony Brickhouse, a professor of aviation safety at Florida’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
“If you look at the numbers, you’re more at risk to have an accident driving to the airport than you are flying at 38,000 feet. I tell people, if you make it to your flight, the most hazardous part of your day is actually behind you.”
Passengers, Brickhouse adds, should pay less attention to exactly what aircraft they’re flying on and focus on things they can control, like their personal safety when they get on board.
“For example by paying attention during the safety briefing, and being aware of where emergency exits are, or not flying with children on their lap,” he says.
The US Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, Brickhouse notes, are investigating the Max 9 blowout and the fact that the aircraft is back in the air means they have completed whatever inspections were necessary to ensure it is as safe as possible.
In the runway collision in Tokyo, a Japan Airlines Airbus A350 struck a Dash 8, a turboprop regional plane operated by the Tokyo Coast Guard, killing five of its six crew.
Last year, a series of near-misses in US airports had prompted an investigation by the FAA.
“If you have a certain trend that keeps occurring, unless you make pretty significant changes, that trend is unfortunately going to turn into an accident,” says Brickhouse. “And I think it’s really important that we’ve been doing what we’re doing, looking into all of these close calls in the airport environment, to learn as much as we can so that we can hopefully prevent that disaster that could be lurking.
“Unfortunately, with the Japan Airlines accident, we did lose five people on the military aircraft, but everybody made it off of the civilian aircraft. From a safety perspective, we can still learn what went right and what didn’t.”
Following the accident, Japan modified some procedures relating to air traffic control, such as having staff constantly monitor ground radar systems that alert of possible runway collisions.
However, this has prompted calls for a significant staff increase, as the measure is believed to put even more strain on the already stretched personnel.
Close to zero
The latest safety report from IATA, the trade association of the world’s airlines, states that in 2022 there were a total of 39 commercial aviation accidents in the world, with 158 on-board fatalities – equalling one accident every 0.83 million flights.
“Accidents are rare in aviation,” Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general, said in a statement accompanying the report.
“There were five fatal accidents among 32.2 million flights in 2022. That tells us that flying is among the safest activities in which a person can engage. But even though the risk of flying is exceptionally low, it is not risk-free.
“Careful analysis of the trends that are emerging even at these very high levels of safety is what will make flying even safer. This year’s report, for example, tells us that we need to make some special efforts on turboprop operations in Africa and Latin America.”
IATA says that in the last 10 years, the industry has improved its overall safety performance by 48%.
A study by Arnold Barnett, a professor of statistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, focuses exactly on aviation’s ever-improving safety record. The study, which is yet to be published, is a follow-up to one he released in 2020, but looks at more recent flight data, until 2022.
The main takeaway is that in the period between 2018 and 2022, the worldwide death risk per boarding was one in 13.4 million - that means that if you picked a flight completely at random and just took it, your chance of dying in a plane crash or a terrorist act was about one in 13 million.
That’s also a significant improvement on the 2008 to 2017 period, where the risk was one in 7.9 million, and a dramatic drop compared to the 1968 to 1977 period, where the risk was one death every 350,000 boardings.
“In the past half-century, we’re now only about 1/38th as likely to die in a plane accident compared to the levels of the late 1960s and 1970s,” Barnett says.
Remote in probability
However, sharing IATA’s concerns, he warns that the world is not homogenous, and there are regions that suffer a higher rate of accidents, particularly developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
“They’re down to one death every 2 million boardings right now, which is higher than the world average of one in 13 million,” he adds.
Conversely, in the countries where the study finds it safest to fly – including Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States – the risk drops to one death in around 80 million boardings.
“I know people who are afraid to fly and that’s a very intense feeling for some of them, but I think that worrying about flying for the risk of death is similar to refusing to go into the supermarket because the ceiling could collapse,” Barnett adds.
When the risk gets sufficiently close to zero, we should effectively treat it as zero, Barnett says.
“I don’t think every moment you’re walking in the street, you assume death might be imminent because a meteor could suddenly hit you or something. These events are so remote in probability that we simply treat them as impossible. And I think flying, statistically, is in that category.”
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