Friday 18 October 2019

Is it still safe to fly?

MH370. MH17. QZ8501.

Is flying still the safest form of transport?
Is flying still the safest form of transport?
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

A spate of disasters has sent shockwaves through the aviation industry. But statistically, flying still remains safer than walking, driving or cycling.

MH 370. MH17. AH5017. And now QZ8501.

Aviation disasters appear to have come thick and fast this year, prompting new fears for passenger safety.

The latest jet to have dropped off radar screens is AirAsia's Flight QZ8105, which disappeared Sunday morning with 162 on board. Contact was lost as the plane was en route from Surabya to Singapore in poor weather.

An Indonesian policeman points at a map of Indonesia at a crisis centre in Juanda International Airport, Surabaya, Indonesia. AirAsia Flight QZ8501 disappeared Sunday, December 28th. Photo: REUTERS/Beawiharta
An Indonesian policeman points at a map of Indonesia at a crisis centre in Juanda International Airport, Surabaya, Indonesia. AirAsia Flight QZ8501 disappeared Sunday, December 28th. Photo: REUTERS/Beawiharta

Last March, Malaysia Airlines MH370 disappeared less than an hour after take-off with 239 people on board. It is still missing. Months later, MH17 was apparently shot down in the skies over Ukraine.

Flying is traditionally regarded as the safest form of transport, but with over 1,320 commercial aviation-related deaths so far this year - according to the Geneva-based Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives (BAAA-ACRO) - is it becoming more risky?

"Every accident is one too many," said Tony Tyler, CEO of the International Air Transport Association (ITAA) in a statement following the loss of MH17 and Air Algerie's Flight 5017, which crashed killing all 110 on board.

"With three tragedies in such quick succession, many people will, understandably, be asking questions about aviation safety," Tyler continued.

"But even so, getting on an aircraft is still among the safest activities that one can do."

His logic?

Every day, approximately 100,000 flights take off and land without incident according to IATA, which represents the airline industry.

That's around 36.5 million flights a year - and while over1,320 deaths is clearly over 1,320 too many - the fatality rate is still relatively low.

Roughly, it equates to one death per 48,217 flights.

Until this year, deaths had been trending downwards - even as more and more flights were taking to the air. In fact 2013, with 459 deaths (BAAA-ACRO data), was the safest year for air travel since World War II.

By contrast, 1.24 million people were killed on the world’s roads last year, according to the World Health Organisation's Global Report on Road Safety.

Clearly, we take more car journeys than flights.

But even when deaths per billion kilometres travelled are compared, air travel ranks safer than travel by car, rail or even foot.

Here's the fatality rate per billion kilometres travelled for the period 1995-2009, according to a UK Department of Transport report cited recently by the UK Civil Aviation Authority.

  • Airline: 0.003
  • Rail: 0.27
  • Car: 2.57
  • Cycling: 34.6
  • Pedestrian: 43.27
  • Motorbike: 106.67
Students from an international school in east China city Zhuji pray for the passengers onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 by lighting candles on March 10, 2014 in Zhuji, China.

Nor do the disasters appear to be affecting airline business at this stage.

"We have seen no impact to bookings," said an Aer Lingus spokesperson, responding to a query about booking levels in the wake of the recent air disasters.

Ryanair also reports no adverse impact – in fact, the airline’s most recent profit report stated that it expected to see traffic grow by 5pc to 86 million passengers in 2014.

Perhaps most tellingly of all, Malaysia Airlines last week announced that it was offering no-questions-asked refunds on all tickets valid for travel in 2014.

Total postponements and refunds were between 5-7pc, according to the Irish travel trade magazine, Travel Extra.

“Load factors from London and Europe remain high whilst forward bookings from Ireland having dropped initially following the incident, are now getting back to normal levels," it reported.

Read more:

Search for MH370 resumes seven months after jet's disappearance AirAsia Flight QZ8501: What happened?

NB: This story has been updated since published.

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