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Commercial air travel has never been safer, study finds

Air travelers have less to fret over going forward

Photo (c) Chalabala - Getty Images
A new study says that commercial air travel has never been safer, and that trend should hold for the foreseeable future.

The study, which was conducted by MIT professor Arnold Barnett, looked at flight data from 2008-2017. It shows that the risk of death per boarding during that period fell by more than half compared with the previous decade. 

When all the numbers shake out, that rate is one death per 7.9 million passenger boardings, globally. That’s compared to one death per 2.7 million boardings during the period between 1998 and 2007, and one death per 1.3 million boardings from 1988-1997.

"The worldwide risk of being killed had been dropping by a factor of two every decade," concluded Arnold. "Not only has that continued in the last decade, the [latest] improvement is closer to a factor of three. The pace of improvement has not slackened at all even as flying has gotten ever safer and further gains become harder to achieve. That is really quite impressive and is important for people to bear in mind."

Good news, bad news

As with most studies, there’s upsides and downsides. 

Two important developments came out of a) China, which Barnett says has made “exceptionally strong safety achievements” and is on course to become the world’s largest aviation nation within the next five years, and; b) the Eastern European members of the European Union, which had a fatality-free record in the last decade. Other low-risk countries are the United States, Canada, and Israel -- as well as New Zealand and Australia, countries that historically do well in safety reviews.

Barnett found that less developed countries -- mostly Asian, African, and Latin American countries --  had room for improvement, with many of them failing to make any serious headway in passenger safety. All told, the death risk in those countries from 2008-2017 was one per 1.2 million passenger boardings -- an improvement from one death per 400,000 passenger boardings during 1998-2007. 

"The risk now in the higher-risk countries is basically the risk we used to have 40-50 years ago" in the safest air-travel countries, Barnett noted.

Looking forward

While Barnett’s study didn’t include the Boeing 737 Max fatalities -- which turned many a passenger into a nervous ninny -- he says that the rate of fatalities has generally declined far faster than public fears about flying. 

"Flying has gotten safer and safer," Barnett says. "It's a factor of 10 safer than it was 40 years ago. The risk is so low that being afraid to fly is a little like being afraid to go into the supermarket because the ceiling might collapse.”

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