Opinion: Fear of flying

POSTED: 07/21/14 1:58 PM

The tragedy with the Malaysian airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur that killed all 295 people onboard inevitably triggers questions about aviation safety. How safe is it really to fly?

Based on raw numbers taking an airplane is much safer than getting into a car. This year, the two Malaysian Airline crashes bring the number of aviation fatalities to 594 – and we’re only in July. It seems a break with the trend of declining aviation fatalities while the volume of air travel steadily increases.

Last year for instance, was the safest year for airline travel in the past decade with 17 accidents and 224 fatalities. The annual average between 2003 and 2012 is 27 accidents with 703 fatalities.

Those are seemingly high numbers, because every fatality is a tragedy that touches many families and friends. But how bad is it really?

According to the World Health Organization 1.24 million people died in traffic accidents in 2010. This is a global figure and it is obvious that one cannot compare it one on one with the aviation numbers. For an accurate comparison, one would need to link those fatalities to miles traveled.

Fear of flying is a phenomenon of all times. Incidents like the downed Malaysian flight have a logical consequence: they instill more fear in people who were already afraid to get on an airplane in the first place and they will probably push reluctant air travelers over the edge.

The American blogger David Parker Brown once made the effort to compare fatalities per 100 million miles for different modes of transport. Traveling by train came out as the most dangerous with 4.40 per 100 million miles, followed by cars (1.33) and – a very distant third – airplanes (0.0077).

Why then do airline crashes have such an impact on the human psyche? That is due – mea culpa – to slanted reporting in the media but also to the perception of viewers and readers. When an airplane is forced to make an emergency landing or when there is a “near-collision” (meaning that actually nothing happened), it makes the news. That makes viewers and readers quickly think, wow, scary those airplanes.

But on an average day, 90 people die in car accidents in the United States alone. One here, two there, another one elsewhere – you get the picture. Those accidents seldom make the national news and therefore the impact of car accidents is not by a long shot as severe as a single plane accident that kills maybe 200 or 300 people in one go.

Do these numbers make fear of flying disappear? Probably not. The most common reason for fear of flying is psychological – the idea that, as an airline passenger, one is not in control. That control is indeed in the hands of the pilot and his co-pilot. Based on the numbers though, they make a much better job of it than those who think they are in control behind the wheel of their cars. And there is this: those pilots want to get home safely too.

Did you like this? Share it:
Opinion: Fear of flying by

Comments are closed.