Fact Check: How Safe Are Airplanes?

Aircraft · 6 min read · Aug 04, 2022
How Safe Are Airplanes?

Aviation safety is a top priority in air travel and airline industry, and there are many reasons why that is so. Notably, even though aircraft accidents are rare, their consequences are highly fatal and costly. More interestingly, there are perhaps a few questions that you’ve pondered over as a first-time air passenger:

1.      If we run out of fuel in the skies, what happens?

2.      If our airplane develops a technical problem and cannot continue the flight, what next?

Unfortunately, your guess is as good as mine. Whereas drivers and road travelers have the advantage of refueling at the nearest petrol station or allowing the passengers to alight as the mechanic troubleshoots the vehicle, with air travel and specifically, airplanes, this is not possible. It is for these reasons that safety standards in commercial aviation are extended from the aircraft to the airline’s management.

Food for thought: As a traveler, what are the primary reasons that you consider before choosing a mode of transport? Many, but perhaps we could narrow that down to four – cost, accessibility, convenience, and safety.

Let’s demystify that a little bit. Cost for affordability/economic reasons. Accessibility because you cannot use what you don’t have or cannot access.  Convenience because you want the mode to enable you to reach your destination, abroad or locally. Finally, yet the most important, safety because you definitely want to arrive alive.

Well, just to reassure you that the skies have never been safer than before. Air travel remains by far the safest mode of transport today. For business travelers, flights offer more reliability, comfort, and speed, thanks to strict schedules, private jets, and powerful engines.

Now, let’s dig into the specifics of why you need not panic next time you travel.

An airplane safety card at the back of the seat in the cabin.

Important Statistics

Aviation safety is perhaps one of those parameters that do not have a specific key performance indicator, KPI. In fact, the NTSB recommended that the measures of safety performance in the aviation industry for a given period should be beyond the number of reported deaths or fatalities. Instead, other safety milestones can be looked into, for example, the percentage of airlines that have safety management systems and show compliance with aviation regulatory regulations.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t celebrate the progress in limiting the fatalities associated with air accidents, but just an appreciation that they are rare and might not be a true indicator of the safety performance of the industry especially when the safety assessment is for a narrower timeframe.

Even more, from a social perspective, it is a way of being sensitive to the few affected families in those incidents. After all, losing one life is far too many. Just one life matters.

Dr. Arnold Barnett, an MIT Professor, said,

“A person would have to fly on average once a day every day for 22,000 years before they would die in a U.S. commercial airplane accident according to recent accident rates.”

In his extensive research, he reported that from 1975 to 1994, 19 years, the risk of dying from an air accident was one over seven million. This means that if you were to go for a flight today, the probability of being involved in a fatal accident is 1 over 7 million.

From his safety assessment, a regular traveler who has to fly every day could probably get involved in an aircraft accident after 19,000 years. Yes, do the math. Even the wildest life expectancy wouldn’t place you beyond 200 years, leave alone Hong Kong’s statistics that are just edging the highest life expectancy at just over 85 years.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, their Air Traffic Organization handles over 45,000 flights annually, with over 2.9 million passengers. From these numbers, looking at the past 10 years only, the NTSB reports that there were no fatalities nor major accidents in 2020, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, and 2012 with 1-2 fatalities in the year 2019, 2018, and 2013.

Further, the highest number of major accidents per million flight hours since 2001 to date as reported by NTSB based on the US aviation data is 0.212, recorded in the year 2004.

Airbus and Boeing safety statistics

Let’s now compare these fatal accidents in air statistics with those of rail and road transport, taking the year 2020 as our baseline. In 2020, there were over 38,000 fatalities from road transport as reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA. With the world’s largest passenger aircraft, the Airbus A380-800, and its closest rival, the Boeing 747-400, at an averagely full passenger capacity of 800 and 600 respectively, they would have to crash 47 times and 63 times, with no survivors, to equal the highway deaths in the same year!

Putting these into more perspective, British Airways, an airline that operates about 12 of the A380 aircraft, will have to crash all the 12 aircraft in major accidents causing fatalities, then add to about 35 more fatal crashes from other major airlines with the same fleet. More simply, Emirates Airlines will have to crash about half of its 73 active A380s and still fall short of the total highway deaths in 2020 in the USA.

Further, even though transcontinental trains have greater odds than automobiles, the risk of you dying in the journey is 1 over 1 million. Comparatively, air travel still offers you over 7 times more safety than railway transport, making it possibly the safest way to travel.

Cabin crew giving airplane safety instructions to the passengers seated in the cabin.

Certifications, Training Standards and Regulations

Getting a driver’s license could take just over 2 months, and one could afford to do the training privately and then register for an assessment. However, a complete pilot’s license could take up to 4 years considering it starts with obtaining a private pilot licence (PPL), Instrument Rating (IR), CPL, ATPL, and then another journey of flight hours acquisition to attain the position of a captain, the highest rank of a pilot. The licenses must be obtained from an approved training organization, ATO.

Equally, ICAO, through oversight by civil aviation authorities such as Federal Aviation Administration and EASA, has comprehensive and strict regulations, contained in Annexes (Annexes 1-19)  that offer guidelines to issues of aviation management, with the primary objective being safety.

High-End Technology

It is no surprise to talk about planes without talking about technology, isn’t it? It is nearly certain that you’ve come across naïve aviation enthusiasts or children having conversations about what keeps the planes afloat. Perhaps it was even you.

Yes, planes are complex systems and while we may not demystify all the technology around the air vehicles, let’s focus on some of the technical aspects that highly contribute to their safe operation particularly those present in modern commercial airplanes. The state-of-the-art technology around these air vehicles is second to none.

Full Authority Digital Engine Control, FADEC

The FADEC is responsible for monitoring and diagnosing engine performance in real-time during flight by relying on multiple inputs based on the prevailing flight conditions. Through a digital display in the cockpit, the system notifies the pilot of any abnormalities with the engine, who then through his or her airmanship, can take the necessary remedial actions.

Therefore, the system offers redundancy in the event of failure, optimizes engine functions, and shields the engine from fault-tolerant system failures, amongst many other safety functions.

Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System, TCAS

This system takes care of those fearful that the aircraft could have mid-air collisions. It serves as an additional eye to the pilots and the air traffic controllers. One of the regulatory requirements by ICAO, which EASA and FAA fulfill its mandate, is that all planes must be equipped with TCAS II if they carry over 30 passengers or have a minimum takeoff weight of 15,000 kg.

Boeing 737-800 cockpit interior with various cockpit technology and instruments.

Ground Proximity Warning System, GPWS

The GPWS, or sometimes Extended GPWS, EGPWS, works almost similarly to TCAS in alerting about possible collisions with obstacles, the ground, or water.

Autopilot

As an air traveler, especially for long-haul flights, you have the advantage of taking a nap while feeling fatigued throughout the journey. The pilot and the co-pilot could also do the same interchangeably but with the help of an auxiliary system to ensure that you arrive at your destination safely.

That system is known as the autopilot, composed of many complementary aircraft systems, and it is meant to offload some burden of flying and monitoring flight controls from the cockpit crew especially when the flight profile is relatively gentle.

Coordination and Collaboration  

The aviation industry relies on both inter and intradepartmental collaboration to ensure safe flights. For example, the pilots and the cabin crew, in general, must depend on the aircraft technicians to maintain the airplanes in airworthy conditions. The cockpit crew must equally maintain two-way communication with the air traffic control, ATC, for proper coordination of flights, who then must liaise with the crew on the ground to actualize the necessary actions.

Also, the flight dispatchers ensure that the passengers are within schedule and all the prerequisite flight conditions are achieved, for example, that the aircraft is properly loaded with luggage, there is sufficient fuel for the flight leg, the cabin interior is clean, seats are properly configured, and the passenger manifest is prepared in time amongst other roles.  

As such, even though the passengers may only get to see the pilot, first officer, and the flight attendants aboard the aircraft as those responsible for their flight, the truth is that the safe operation of the flight can be traced to so many “unsung” heroes. This is comparable to a big project in which through project decomposition, each group of individuals or departments is assigned specific roles, through division of labor, for which they are specialized.

An airplane ready to land at an airport after a safe airplane flight.

Further, human factor policies are very much incorporated in aviation management. This is with the recognition that over 80% of aviation accidents are human-related. Elements such as fatigue, complacency, lack of communication, and stress amongst others, which have been commonly referred to as the dirty dozen, emphasize the extent of collaborative approaches by the relevant stakeholders in ensuring safe flights.

Therefore, let’s not confuse reality with the media hype reporting skills. Simply put, how safe are airplanes? Safe enough to book your first flight and enjoy flying.

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Jaap Brian profile picture
Jaap Brian
A highly passionate aviator, with a solid background in aeronautical engineering. His journey to writing about aviation topics is founded on sharing insights into aviation safety and technical aircraft performance – a journey that is 6+ years and counting.

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