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The question says it all. It's a commonplace that "airliner travel" for passengers is far and away the safest travel, on almost any metric (per mile, hour, per human-year, etc).

However, I've seen it said that for airline crew (who obviously fly ~once or even many times per day) the danger becomes as high as say "driving in Europe".

(I don't know how you quantify that - perhaps "deaths per year". Also, I would assume the implication is versus "consumer car drivers", not versus eg truck drivers.)

This question is strictly about airliner travel, i.e. large 20+ seat aircraft flying scheduled routes for name-brand national and international airlines: I don't want to see the statistics polluted with GA, private planes, bush flying, Fedex, rock band aircraft crashes from the 70s, etc.

Any ideas on this? is it

  • Just a myth?

  • A distortion of statistics? (Something like "sure, crew obviously die more than passengers, but taxi drivers proportionately die spectacularly more than crew" - sort of thing?)


["airliner" is defined end of story in the tags on this site, but I just thought I'd spell it out to avoid a rash of confusion]

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  • $\begingroup$ PS I assumed this would have been fully addressed on here already; but couldn't find it. $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Mar 27 at 14:03
  • $\begingroup$ Origin of the comparison between driving and frequent flying of flight attendants $\endgroup$
    – ROIMaison
    Mar 27 at 15:15
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    $\begingroup$ The elevated radiation at high altitude is probably more of a health risk than a deadly crash. $\endgroup$ Mar 27 at 16:32
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterKämpf Indeed! I thought that might be the case (I didn't bother explicitly stating "crashes" since it seems implicit in the car case that radiation is not involved (except perhaps at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umling_La )) $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Mar 27 at 16:52
  • $\begingroup$ As @PeterKämpf says, the figures about crashes are likely to be a sideshow. The health impacts of increased radiation and other impacts of constant travel are likely to be much more significant. $\endgroup$ Mar 28 at 10:41

2 Answers 2

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Not an easy question. These statistics are scattered and hard to process.

One of the best summaries I've seen is here. It's not official, but the airline stats check against the original source. For GA, numbers have to be converted from 0.77 per 100k flight-hours to 35 per 1B miles at an average of 215 mph. For convenience, I'll use fatalities per trillion pax-miles or TPM. Fatality rates for crew tend to be a bit lower than for passengers, but not by far.

It comes down to:

  • 70 per TPM for airliners; numbers are pre-MAX and exclude 9/11
  • 110 per TPM for buses
  • 150 per TPM for trains
  • 7,300 per TPM for cars
  • ~35,000 per TPM for GA
  • 212,000 per TPM for motorcycles

That paints a picture of a 1:100 ratio of airline to car fatalities. That said, the average US car driver covers 37 miles per day. The average FA does 90 hours per month, which at 500 mph comes to 1,500 miles per day. So the claim isn't 100% true - a daily car commute in the US is still 2.5x more dangerous than a flight crew job. But the US averages more traffic fatalities than Europe with its shorter commutes.

This doesn't compare flying all day with driving all day, only flying as a job with a simple daily commute. That said, professional drivers do build up skill resulting in lower accident rates. Buses have great stats. Taxi stats have been polluted by modern taxis being primarily ride-hail services with many part-time drivers, but even they average a lower accident rate than car commuters.

The real myth is that road driving is an exception from the rule that proficiency takes time and effort to achieve. The statistics say it's not. Professional drivers are better and safer than amateur drivers by almost as wide a margin (1:70) as that between amateur GA pilots and professional ATPs (1:500). People who drive for a living are in fact better at it than the rest of us.

A confounding factor is that airliners, even ones from less-reputable builders or in less-reputable airlines, are designed, built and maintained to incomparably higher standards than GA airplanes. This definitely plays into that 1:500 ratio. Between cars and buses, though, the difference in build and service quality is less drastic.

GA's safety record is comparable to other extreme sports and on the low end of the extreme, similar to scuba diving. It's safer than skydiving, mountaineering, or motorcycling. But not in the range of common carrier safety. Part of the reason is lack of hardware redundancy, a larger part is a low skill threshold. It's a sport that can also be a means of transportation, not the other way around.

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    $\begingroup$ What happens more often: a fatal crash, or a flight being cancelled/delayed because the pilot died in a car crash during the commute to the airport? $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    Mar 27 at 20:32
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    $\begingroup$ @DeltaLima Is the plane a [s]Calhoun[/s] Boeing? Is the car a Pinto? Is the airline based in a LDC? $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Mar 27 at 20:40
  • $\begingroup$ Also a factor when comparing TPM - the typical bus might seat 50-ish passengers. There are smaller planes in scheduled service, but when you're looking at typical Boeing and Airbus airliners in scheduled service they are more like 100 - 400 passenger capacity. $\endgroup$ Mar 27 at 21:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Fattie Among extreme sports, GA's mortality is far from the highest, and similar to scuba diving. But the right way to treat it, in my view, is as a sport, with its associated risks. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Mar 27 at 22:34
  • $\begingroup$ Why exclude 911? $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Mar 28 at 12:13
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From What percentage of airplanes are involved in a crash in their lifetime?, mean values derived from IATA 2014 statistics (IATA is the air carriers association):

  • IATA aircraft in the World: 23.000.
  • Flights per day per aircraft = 4.3.
  • A fatal accident after 3 millions flights.

You may read the linked question to see how we get to the following outcome:

  • A fictive airline with 320 aircraft, which is the size of an operator like Air France, faces one fatal accident each 6 years.

Now deriving new numbers from this result.


New assumptions:

  • A career is 40 years.
  • A crew works 5 days a week
  • 5 crews are required to cover 24 hours, thus each crew flies 4.8 hours a day. Thanks to @DeltaLima for providing this ratio.

From this:

$ \sf \small { \begin {array}{|l|l|l|} \hline \sf \small \text {Years between fatal accidents for the airline} & & \sf 6 \\ \sf \small \text {Daily probability for the airline} & \sf 1 / (6 \times 365) & \sf 4.57e-04 \\ \sf \small \text {Daily probability for a single aircraft} & \sf (4.57e-04) / 320 & \sf 1.43e-06 \\ \sf \small \text {Daily probability for a crew member} & \sf (1.43e-06) / (7/5) / (24/4.8) & \sf 2.04e-07 \\ \sf \small \text {Yearly probability for a crew member} & \sf (2.04e-07) \times 365 & \sf 7.44e-05 \\ \sf \small \text {Career probability for a crew member} & \sf (7.44e-05) \times 40 & \sf 2.98e-03 \\ \sf \small \text {Years worked before death} & \sf 1 / (2.98e-03) & \sf 1.34e+04 \end {array} } $

During their career, a crew member has a probability of dying in a crash of 0,298%. It means the probability is 100% after 13,400 years.

While I take a fictive airline of 320 aircraft, these final figures are mean values for any airline size. But the distribution of accidents is not flat, it depends also on local factors, e.g. how maintenance and training are delivered.


See also: What are the statistical probabilities of commercial aircraft accidents?

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  • $\begingroup$ Fascinating. Completely randomly googled factoid "The lifetime odds of dying in a crash for a person born in 2021 are 1 in 93" supposedly. (As always, statistics from any source are often totally nonsensical since very few people understand statistics but everyone thinks they do, but I just randomly googled that up, it's an interesting approach to stating the likelyhood.) $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Mar 27 at 16:56
  • $\begingroup$ Here's a probably reasonably reliable source for "deaths per 100,000 humans" (blue line) injuryfacts.nsc.org/motor-vehicle/historical-fatality-trends/… Note though that the second chart, scroll down, deaders per mile, blue line, is drastically different. $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Mar 27 at 17:00
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    $\begingroup$ @quietflyer: If for this airline fatal accidents have a mean period of 6 years, for the 6 first years, nobody died, the next day the whole crew and the passengers died. And don't call me Shirley :-) $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Mar 27 at 19:08
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    $\begingroup$ @mins I am trying to understand your logic in your calculation. You divide by a factor 8 to arrive at 5700 years. Are you assuming average 8 hour working days? I think that is extremely high. In staff planning we need approximately 5 FTE for 1 position in 24/7 operations. You need 3 people to work around the clock in 8 hour shift, but you also have to account for weekends, sick leave, holidays, training etc. $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    Mar 27 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ For pilots, FAA has a regulatory limit of 1,000 flight hours per year (FAR 121.481(f)). $\endgroup$
    – user71659
    Mar 28 at 7:55

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