Airline safety

Are the oft quoted safety stats used by the airline industry vs automobile safety fair?

Apples to oranges says a friend of mine when he gets on a rant…

Airlines use “passenger miles” as their basis of comparison. eg: An airliner with 100 passengers flies 1,000 miles = 100,000 miles of safe travel. Is this a fair comparison to auto travel?

How does airline safety stack up against car travel on a PER TRIP basis?

Sign me: not ready for a “water landing” as oft described in the filght attendent’s pre-take off speech. Yeah, like this 747 is just going to set down gently in the North Atlantic somewhere…right!


Well, they’re sort of fair, in that nothing that they say is a flat-out lie.

But it depends on how you define ‘safety’. They’ve chosen to emphasize ‘passenger-miles’ because that will skew the numbers to make them look safer.

Compared to automobiles, airplanes tend to carry more passengers (100-400 per plane, vs. 1-4 in a typical car) and travel a longer distance (1000 miles vs. common car trips of 5-15 miles). If they compared to similar multi-passenger transportation modes (inter-city buses, trains, or ocean cruise ships), the safety figures would be much closer. And if they compared transportation over the same distance (for example, New York to Washington DC planes vs. Amtrak Trains), I think the safety figures would be even closer.

And including ALL automobile travel grossly skews the figures. The great majority of automobile travel is with amateur drivers, very untrained & unskilled compared to airline pilots. Exclude them, and compare to automobile traffic with professional drivers (buses, trucks, limo drivers, even cabs), and you’d see much closer safety figures.

And I believe they talk about ‘accident-free passenger-miles’. That effectively makes all accidents count the same. A minor fender-bender entering the mall parking lot means that trip is excluded from the tally, just as a 747 flying into a mountain is. But such minor auto accidents are much less dangerous to the occupants of the vehicle. If you took as your measure of ‘safety’ the percentage of passengers who survive an accident, then airline travel would look much worse.

To your last comment, you might be surprised at the number of accidents where people survive. The passengers who do survive tend to have one thing in common, (actually, two things), 1st, they were lucky, 2nd they generally had an idea of what to do in case of a crash.

I fly for a company that don’t carry passengers and conduct long over-water flights. The crews always brief the actions in the event of a ditching prior to each flight, even though we’ve all heard it before and know it like the back of our hands.

Ignore the pre-takeoff brief at your peril, one day it may save your life.

As far as the accident statistics go, I agree, apples and oranges.

The nice safe thing about flying is that there are far fewer amateurs up there to kill you by their actions.

Here’s an article I wrote that appeared in Teemings–note the publication date–that addresses this very issue.

It starts with the standard airline stat that air travel is ten times safer, and cites another study that says it’s ten times less safe. Yet both use the same data. Mark Twain, where are you?

He’s in a grave in Elmira, New York. A photo of his grave is available at

I’m not a nervous air traveller. I love flying. However, I view it as an all or nothing affair, ie, compared to othr forms of transport, you probably won’t crash. However, if you do, you’re basically fucked. I have heard two things about airliner crashes. The first one is that in your ‘landing at sea’, you have a <1% chance of survival, and the second is that in considering whether the front of the plane or the rear is the safer place to be when you ditch into a mountainside, you should simply visualise a piece of asparagus being forced into a blender. :smiley:

But I like flying.

A surprising number of people can survive a plane crash on flat ground. Everyone remembers wen that DC-10 Cartwheeled in at the Sioux City airport. The video was shown again and again, it made the news for weeks. Not everyone realizes that 185 of the 296 people on board survived. That’s a 5:8 survival ratio, better than even.

On the other hand a water “landing”? In the unlikely event of a water “landing” you’ll probably die, unless it’s sometig minor like skidding off the end of a runway like that World Airways flight, also a DC-10, that slid off the runway at Logan. But even in that case, two people died when the plane broke in two.

It’s true that you’re more likely to be involved in a crash in a car than in a passenger jet; and it’s true that you’re more likely to be fatally injured if you crash in a jet than if you crash in a car. As Bill Door says, many airline crashes are survivable – at least for some or many of the passengers.

As to whether the fore or aft section is safer, I’m reading Stiff: The Curious Lives Of Human Cadavers. There’s a chapter that deals with using cadavers in air crash research that includes a meeting with Dennis Shanahan, who investigated the post mortem data on TWA Flight 800 passengers. The author asked Mr. Shanahan directly which end of the aircraft is safer.

Actually, Mark Twain attributed the quote to Benjamin Disraeli, although as you can see from the cites, there is some question as to whether the quote originated with Disraeli.

Using that method, full planes have better safety stats than near-empty planes.

So always book your travel on full planes! They have fewer crashes per million passenger-miles!

Quick. When was the last major airliner crash in the U.S.?

I doubt you know. The answer is a little suprising.

Not true. I’m off to bed now, but will dig up a cite tomorrow if you like. Water landings in general (including light aircraft,) have a survival rate of around 80%. Given a choice of water or land, water will often be the better option.

Three months ago? Or four years ago? Depends how you define “major”, I guess.

Has anyone ever done indisputable apples-to-apples on this? For example, the fatality rate for an air trip from NY to LA vs. the same trip by car? I would guess (WAG) that the auto fatality rate per passenger mile is much higher on congested metro highways and higher speed main arteries compared to the turnpikes and long stretches of interstate that would parallel a typical plane trip.

I’ll bet it’s more dangerous to drive to the airport than to drive to your destination. :slight_smile:

Are you sure cabs are safe? :wink:

I personally think (more opinion here than anything else) , that neither statistic makes sense (fatalities/passenger-miles or fatalities/passenger-trips). I think the statistic to look at is number of fatal accidents/number of overall trips (irrespective of the number of passengers or length of trip). I would define “trip” as any one travel segment where one has the opportunity to get on/off the car/plane/train/whatever. This would tell you “if I get on this plane/in this car” what is the probability of *someone * dying, not necessarily me,as a result of the plane/car getting into an accident? Now the fact that car trips tend to be shorter/have fewer passangers but more numerous than plane trips may *affect * that probability (or it may not, I haven’t looked at the figures actually), but that just means its the nature of that travel; normalizing it by distance travelled or number of passengers in the same conveyance doesn’t lower the probability of death on any given trip.

What those other statistics tell you is expectancy: how far you can expect to travel or how many people can be expected to travel in one mode over the other before someone dies. It doesn’t tell you the proability of a fatality on any given trip.

I would suspect on that basis (again, no research here) that airline safey is still better as compared to automobiles, but not as “spectacularly better”.