If you fly enough, one of these times you will sit down on a plane next to someone who is scared to be there. Likely you won't know this until you’re on the takeoff roll and that person starts hyperventilating, praying, or something else that they are trying to alleviate their fears with. This seems to be a very common fear… but is it justified?
The short answer to that question is no… but it’s rarely that simple. People sometimes have irrational fears of things. Fears they don’t know why they have, or ones that they can’t seem to break. Those kinds of fears are hard to deal with, and ones that I am certainly not qualified to help with. There is another group which I may be able to help put things in perspective for, however. This group are people who know they are fine in the air, but get afraid when they see accidents on TV or in the news.
Reasons for why the media focus on these accidents are something of a mystery. The big accidents are understandable but what makes a minor incident newsworthy and what makes another one unworthy of coverage is a confusing thing to me. Either way, the fact remains that the reason we hear so much about these accidents is because when they happen, it impacts many people at a time.
We all seem to be keenly aware of the fact that is thrown about that planes are safer than cars by orders of magnitude. This isn’t very comforting to people though, I suspect this has something to do with the fact that saying that is a very inexact way of getting information across. Planes are safer… well how much safer?
I am a math guy deep down inside, so do brace yourself for my need to throw number at you. Hopefully, being able to see real life numbers will help put things into context and reinforce how much safer air travel really is than you may think.
Lets look at industry practices. Having been in the world of aircraft design, I will give you some anecdotal evidence that planes are designed with a lot of safety in mind. Starting in college and reinforced into the workplace, we are told, as engineers, that we hold people’s lives in our hands. Doctors often hear how many lives they hold in their hands… not that what I do is at all comparable to what a doctor does, but as a commercial aircraft engineer that number is very small. The potential number of people that will ride on the aircraft I help design is huge… hundreds of millions of people level huge. That is not lost on me, it is something that I must be keenly aware of it.
During the design process of an aircraft, there are many… many… many reviews by many different people. There are so many rules on how a plane must be designed safely, that it will make your head spin. I came from the wiring world, and in order to make sure those control signals never could be interrupted. Redundant wiring was run on different side of the plane so if something was to happen to one side of the plane, the backup system would be as far away from that as possible and have a good chance of surviving any accident that might happen mid air. After all of these check, balances, backups, redundancies, we still had to go to another review and run it by multiple FAA representatives who told us whether or not what we did was safe. If they said no, we had to go back and redesign everything to fix the issue.
Now for some statistics:
Fatal Car Accidents - Chances are 1 in 5000 that a drive will end fatally
Fatal Plane Crash - Chances are 1 in 11million that a flight will end fatally
These numbers are so far apart, they almost aren’t comparable. That has a lot to do with how heavily regulated aircraft safety is by the FAA and other international organizations.
As an example let's take a look at the Germanwings disaster that happened back in March. This is a unique crash because it wasn’t a mechanical problem or pilot error, this was a deliberate crash of a plane. This was a scary thing for many people because it wasn’t something that went wrong, it was someone in a seriously disturbed state.
However, let's look at the numbers on this one, using figures from 2014 on average daily flights, we see that in the world on an average day, 47,777 flights take off around the world.
This means that if you were to have boarded a plane on the day that this crash happened, you would have had a 0.002% chance of being on the one airplane that was crashed like this on that day. Even more in your favor, if you flew once this year, your chances of being on that single flight 0.000005%. If these number show you anything, it’s that even if an accident happened every day, the likelyhood of being on that one plane that had an accident would be incredible low, and they dont happen every day. With 47,777 flights a day, it’s a minor miracle that the accident rate is so low with aircraft.
Also keep in mind that there are required maintenance schedules with these airplanes. Very expensive checks that require planes to be torn down every so many years in order to check every part for damage or possibility of failure.. commercial aviation goes through a lot of effort to keep you safe.
While I don’t know that this helped at all to alleviate your fears, but putting it in this context might at least give some perspective on why your next flight, you should relax a bit more, you’ll land safe and sound on the other end.