Is flying still safe?

An Air France flight has gone down into the Atlantic Ocean on its way from Brazil to France. It had 228 people on board, 216 passengers and 12 crew members. An electrical storm may have been to blame for the disaster although this would be extraordinarily exceptional.

Lightning usually stays on the outside. Pilots and passengers should not experience anything more than a bright flash and loud noise. But if lightning finds a way into an airplane, it can destroy electronics and ignite fuel. Watch the video of a lightning striking a Qantas plane.

Do we need to be worried about airline safety? In the first two months of 2009 alone, four other serious flight accidents occurred:

1. On February 25, 2009, a Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-800 crashed in the Netherlands in a field about a mile (1.6 km) short of one of Amsterdam airport’s runways. Of the 135 people on board nine were killed (three crew members and six passengers).

2. On February 12, 2009, a Continental Connection Dash 8 Q-400 crashed near Buffalo in the state of New York, USA in a residential area about five miles (8 km) from the airport. All 44 passengers and four crew members were reportedly killed, along with one person on the ground.

3. On February 7, 2009, a Manaus Aerotaxi Embraer Bandeirante crashed into the Manacapuru River near Santo Antonio, Brazil. Both crew members and 22 of the 26 passengers were killed.

4. On January 15, 2009, a US Airways Airbus 320-200 lost power to both engines in the city of New York, USA: The crew successfully ditched the aircraft in the Hudson River without any fatalities. All five crew members and 150 passengers could evacuate the aircraft and were picked up by ferries.

Despite these accidents, air travel remains the safest form of passenger transport. If you travel by car to the airport, it is the most dangerous part of your trip. Compare the number of passenger fatalities per 100 million passenger miles in the USA in the period 1996-2005: 0.81 for cars, 0.05 for passenger trains, 0.04 for buses, and 0.02 for airlines.

Thus, aviation accidents are extremely rare.

US Airways

The probability that you will be killed on a flight is eight million-to-one. If you would board a flight everyday, it would statistically take over 21,000 years before you would be killed.

Airline safety has increased considerably in the past decades. The number of fatal accidents remained fairly stable since 1980. In the same period, however, the number of flights doubled.

In the 2000s, 54% of all fatal flight accidents were caused by human errors (45% by pilots), 28% by mechanical failures, 9% by sabotage, 8% by weather, and 1% by other causes. Thus, the human factor is the most risky in the aviation industry.

One way to measure airline safety is the accident rate. Based on this measure the top-10 safe airlines are ranked as follows:

1.   Delta Airlines
2.   Southwest Airlines
3.   Northwest Airlines
4.   Continental Airlines
5.   Lufthansa
6.   British Airways
7.   Air Canada
8.   All Nippon Airways
9.   Iberia
10. Japan Air Lines
Continental Airlines

However, you should be aware of two caveats. First, airline safety is a complicated concept that can be defined in different ways. As a result, different rankings show different results. Second, rankings are based on past accidents and do not predict an airline’s future safety record.

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