“Getting on an aircraft is still among the safest activities that one can do.”
Tony Tyler, International Air Transport Association, 25 July 2014
The grim news that there were no survivors from the Air Algerie passenger jet that crashed in Mali means that almost 1,000 people have died in air crashes so far this year.
The downing of AH5017 on Thursday with the loss of 116 lives means this has been one of the deadliest weeks in aviation history.
Some 462 people have died in three passenger jet crashes since flight MH17 was blown up over eastern Ukraine on 17 July.
But industry leaders are at pains to point out that air travel still has a good safety record.
Tony Tyler, head of the International Air Transport Association, said: “With three tragedies in such quick succession, many people will understandably be asking questions about aviation safety.”
He added: “Despite the events of the past seven days, flying is safe.” Is that true?
The Swiss Bureau of Aircraft Accidents keeps track of every air crash involving a plane capable of carrying at least six passengers.
We’re not just talking about commercial flights. Military aircraft are also included – troop transporters and logistics planes rather than fighters and bombers in combat.
The bureau says 991 people have died so far in 2014, already double the body count from 2013.
But last year’s death toll of 459 was the lowest since the 1940s, so the 2014 total is still not spectacularly high, despite the horrendous casualties of the last week.
In fact, 2014 is only the deadliest year since 2010 (so far). The trend for the last five years is still a downward one.
The long-term trend is equally clear.
Over the last 10 years, there have been an average of 1,001 deaths a year. In the previous 10 years there were 1,581 fatalities a year on average. In the decade before that an average of 2,125 people died a year.
And if we look at the number of crashes rather than fatalities, the downward trend is even more clear.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which looks at scheduled commercial flights only, recorded its lowest ever rate of accidents per million departures in 2013.
So exactly how safe is flying? This can be expressed in different ways, all of which have different conceptual strengths and weaknesses.
US statistics professor Arnold Barnett, one of the world’s leading experts on flight safety, says what nervous flyers like him really want to know is how likely they are to die if they pick a flight a random.
Looking at data from 2000 to 2008, he calculated that the chances of a passenger dying on a scheduled flight in a developed world country like the US or Britain was 1 in 14 million.
In other words, you would have to take a flight every day for 38,000 years on average before you died in a crash.
This number is several years out of date now but again, there is a clear long-term trend of improvement.
In the 1960s, the first decade of the jet age, a passenger on a scheduled flight in the first world (excluding the US) had about a one in 500,000 chance of being involved in a fatal accident.
The risk was just one in 2 million by the end of the 1970s. It halved to one in 4 million in the 80s and was as low as one in 20 million in 2000-20008.
By contrast, the average Briton has about a one in 1 to 2 million chance of being struck by lightning in any given year.
Is flying safer than driving?
There are number of different ways of comparing the two, but all of them suggest it is safer to fly.
In 2008 America’s National Safety Council put the lifetime risk of dying in a motor vehicle accident at one in 98. The odds of dying in the air were one in 7,178 over a lifetime.
Others prefer to compare the death risk per distance driven or flown. The US Department of Transportation says there were 1.3 deaths per 100m vehicle miles and 1.9 per 100m aircraft miles a year on average between 1999 and 2003.
Does it matter who you fly with?
The Bureau of Aircraft Accidents also keeps tallies of the numbers of air crash fatalities by airline.
The commercial operator with the most deaths is Russia’s Aeroflot (10,130), followed by Air France (1,788), US carriers Pan Am (1,648) and American Airlines (1,442).
These are raw numbers that don’t take into account the number of flights each airline does, so should not be taken as evidence of a poor safety record.
Germany’s Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre does take into account miles flown when it publishes its annual rankings of airline safety. Finnair was top in 2013.
Some parts of the world are definitely safer than others.
Prof Barnett’s groundbreaking 2009 study found that the richest countries had the lowest death risk per flight – one in 14 million – but this dropped to one in 2 million in newly industrialised nations like Brazil and China and one in 800,000 in the rest of the developing world.
He says this has less to do with “first world” airlines being safer than their counterparts in poorer regions, and more to do with factors like air traffic control and other infrastructure being less reliable in the developing world.
ICAO figures show how much more dangerous it is to fly in sub-Saharan Africa (that’s the AFI region at the top of the list) than any other region.
Flying remains a very safe activity compared with many activities, including other forms of transport. Statistically speaking, the drive to the airport is the most dangerous part of your trip.
It’s likely that the recent flurry of fatalities is a statistical blip, with all the long term trends suggesting that air travel is safer now than ever.
If you are still worried about the very unlikely prospect of a crash, a study in Popular Mechanics in 2007 suggested that you increase your chances of surviving by sitting towards the back of the plane.