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Airline safety – the facts and the numbers

Updated on March 12, 2012

In the United States, there are two main agencies tasked with airline safely issues. One of these is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). As part of the Department of Transportation, the FAA is responsible for the regulation and oversight of all aspects of civil aviation.

While the FAA generally is making decisions with the goal of preventing accidents, the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) steps in after an accident has occurred. As an independent federal agency, their function is to investigation transportation accidents, determine the cause, and make recommendations to prevent future accidents. Since its creation in 1967, the NTSB has investigated over 124,000 accidents in the United States and around the world. It maintains an extensive database of these accidents and their findings.


How are aircraft accidents defined?

In order to understand accident statistics, first it’s important to now how the NTSB defines an accident, as well as how they count them. The NTSB divides what are termed ‘aviation incidents’ into 3 categories: near mid-air collisions, incidents, and aircraft accidents.

A near mid-air collision is the least serious. This is any incident that could have resulted in a collision, but no injury or property damage occurred. This would include any instance when there is less than 500 feet between aircraft, or when a flight crew member reports a collision hazard.

The most serious, of course, is the aircraft accident. In order to be counted as an accident, the incident must have occurred after any person has boarded an aircraft for a flight and before all people have left the plane, and the incident must involve either serious injury or death, or serious damage to the aircraft. Accidents are in turn broken down further into four levels of seriousness, from damage only to a major accident, which includes fatalities.

In the middle ground comes the incident. An incident is something that isn’t serious enough to reach accident level, but that affected or could have affected safety. For instance, if a small plane comes within a few hundred feet of an airliner, it would be classified as a near mid-air collision. But if that airliner turns steeply to avoid a collision, causing a passenger to fall and sprain an ankle, the event has now become an incident.


How are accidents calculated?

Now that we know what we’re counting, we can decide how to count. Of course, it would be simple enough to say “Airline A had 2 accidents, and Airline B had 10,” but those numbers alone might not tell the whole story. There is no context for comparison.

For this reason, accident statistics are given as either the number of accidents per one million takeoffs, or the number of accidents per million miles traveled. This makes it possible to more accurately compare carriers of different sizes, or even compare air safety with other types of transportation. If Airline A had 2 accidents during the year with 500,000 flights, their accident rate is 4 accidents per million takeoffs. If Airline B had 10 accidents but 5 million flights, their accident rate is 2 accidents per million takeoffs. Even though Airline B had more overall accident, they actually had a lower accident rate.

Even when comparing accident rates in this manner, the number may not tell the whole story, because numbers don’t indicate the severity of the accident. Basically, an accident is an accident is an accident, whether it involved only property damage or caused dozens of deaths.

Is flying really safer than driving?

It’s something said often, but is it true? The answer is a definite maybe, depending on the type of flight. There is a great deal of difference in the accident rates of commercial airlines compared to that of the small personal planes known as general aviation (GA).

Break down the numbers comparing the number of fatalities per 100 million miles traveled. Despite our worries, driving is a relatively safe activity, averaging 1.32 fatal accidents and 1.47 fatalites per 100 million miles. Commercial airlines average only 0.05 fatal accidents, but 1.57 fatalities. In other words, while the odds of being kille din a commercial plane crash are about the same as being killed in a car crash, the odds of actually being in that plane crash are much lower. This may seem illogical, but the explanation is simple – auto accidents with multiple fatalities are fairly uncommon, but fatal airline crashes almost always have multiple victims.

So in safety terms, flying commercial compares favorably to driving. General aviation, however, is another story, averaging 7.46 fatal accidents and 13.1 fatalities per 100 million miles traveled. This is higher than almost any other mode of transportation. In fact, one of the few methods of travel with a higher fatality rate is walking, which averages just over 20 fatalities per 100 million miles.

Trying to figure the odds? The Department of Transportation has done that for you. According to the USDOT, only 1 in 1.6 million airline passengers dies each year, while 1 in 6800 drivers will die in an accident. Measured another way, one airline passenger dies for every four million flights taken. This is better odds than winning the lottery, much better than the odds of dying as a result of an accidental gunshot, and better than the odds of suffocating in bed while you’re asleep.

When you get right down to it, despite our fears, there’s little cause for worry about your safety when flying in the United States.


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