New Study Shows Air Travel is the Safest It’s Ever Been

Published: 02-11-2020
Good news to start 2020 for airline travel.

Especially as a pilot, you have probably heard the phrase “It is statistically safer to travel by air than any other mode of transportation.” Having this level of confidence in flying is great for encouraging passengers to book flights, as well as easing the nerves of pilots and crew members when turbulence hits.

In addition to that helpful refrain, MIT shared some upbeat news at the end of January in regards to air travel. According to them, traveling by plane is the safest it has ever been.

Let’s take an in-depth look at the details of this study.

Date and Area Specifics Matter

Arnold Barnett, professor at MIT, has been keeping track of passenger fatalities dating back to 1968. This data, as well as a detailed explanation as to why, was published in an article dubbed Aviation Safety: A Whole New World? at the end of January.

According to Barnett, “We show that death risk per boarding over 2008–2017 fell by more than half compared with the previous decade”. Couple this with the following fatality-to-traveler ratios, and it is easier to see why the professor is announcing air travel is safer than ever:

  • 1968-1977: 1 in 350,000

  • 1978-1987: 1 in 750,000

  • 1988-1997: 1 in 1.3 million

  • 1998-2007: 1 in 2.7 million

  • 2008-2017: 1 in 7.9 million

Now, at first glance this data may appear to simply reflect an increase in travel. However, Barnett, George Eastman Professor of Management Science and a Professor of Statistics at the MIT Sloan School of Management, suggests that airplane safety standards around the globe have increased substantially.

According to his research, high-risk airlines such as those in Eastern Europe and China, have increased the number safety advancements over the last decade. As a result, higher-risk airliners significantly reduced fatalities.

  • 1998-2007: 1 in 400,000

  • 2008-2017: 1 in 1.2 million

To put those numbers into perspective, low-risk airlines, such as those in the United States, only had 1 fatality in 33.1 million onboarding passengers between 2008 and 2017. So it’s safe to say that the biggest gains have been made in developing economies around the world.

These statistics were collected from various sources, such as the World Bank and the Flight Safety Foundation’s Aviation Safety Network Accident Database.

After gathering a variety of data sources, Barnett opted to use the deaths-per-boarding metrics, rather than deaths per flight or miles travelled. As a result, overall improvements may not be as keenly reflected if you use other metrics.

For example, if year-to-year stats are used, you could easily believe air travel safety is getting worse. In 2017, there were only 12 fatalities, whereas in 2018 there were about 470.

Although Barnett is cited as “the nation’s leading expert on aviation safety”, he welcomes further research into why air travel safety continues to improve.