There's lots of debates in the Space world about the safety margins of modern rockets (specifically the fact that the ITS isn't planned to have an abort mode as (in the words of many SpaceX supporters), it "should be as safe as airplanes").

Now, I know that modern airplanes are crazy safe (as in, the last fatal crash of a major US airline in the US was just a month after 9/11), but I presume that back in the 1920s seats on airplanes were sold commercially without passengers having an abort mode either, and those airplanes were much less reliable than modern ones.

How has the accident per flight statistics changed throughout aviation history?

  • $\begingroup$ Are you specifically asking about the 20s? $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Feb 26, 2017 at 7:54
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    $\begingroup$ Your question is quite good but maybe a little too vague. You should precise what you mean by "fatal accident" (does it imply injuries? aircraft lost? does it include delibarated act to loose the aircraft --terrisism, suicide,...--?) $\endgroup$
    – Manu H
    Feb 26, 2017 at 8:29
  • $\begingroup$ As it stands this question is very broad, maybe narrowing down to a specific decade might help? $\endgroup$
    – Notts90
    Feb 26, 2017 at 9:39
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    $\begingroup$ I believe the OP is looking for a general statistics of accident rate of commercial air travel since ~1920s (perhaps one data point per 5 years / per decade), which makes sense and is not too broad. $\endgroup$
    – kevin
    Feb 26, 2017 at 12:11
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    $\begingroup$ Related: Airline safety: what happened between 1959 and 1962? which actually covers the period 1959 to today, e.g. in this graphic from Boeing. You seem to ask about the US only, the FAA was created in 1958, that will be difficult to get statistics before 58. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Feb 26, 2017 at 13:09

1 Answer 1


Accidents "per flight" is unfair when comparing a 10-passenger Ford Trimotor to an 853-passenger A380. Passenger miles is fairer. Even fairer is accidents per passenger, ignoring miles, because takeoff and landing have always been more accident prone than cruise. But even easier to measure historically is fatalities per passenger.

Commercial airline travel as we recognize it started in 1926. http://www.planecrashinfo.com/1926/1926.htm reports 36 fatalities worldwide that year.
1926 had about 6000 passengers in the USA. Luft Hansa probably had more. Let's generously guess 20000 worldwide. So the fatality ratio was about one in 550.

In 1930, 385,000 passengers were "carried on domestic and foreign airlines under the American flag". In 1935, nearly, 1,000,000 (Berkeley Daily Gazette). PlaneCrashInfo in these years veers away from airliners, though, and I couldn't find reliable global crash or fatality info for those years.

During World War II, and immediately preceding and following it, statistics about nonmilitary air travel are bound to be noisy.

From 1950 to 1970, per-year fatalities went from about 1,000 to 1,500 (with a dip in 1955).
Over that same interval, per-year passengers went from roughly 50,000,000 to 500,000,000.
So fatalities per passenger dropped from 1950 one in 50,000 to 1970 one in 333,000.
That second figure is corroborated by another source:

The "fatality risk per boarding" in 1968-77 was one in 350,000.
In 1978-87, one in 750,000.
In 1988-97, one in 1,300,000.
In 1998-2007, one in 2,700,000.
In 2008-2017, one in 7,900,000.
-- A. Barnett, "Aviation Safety: A Whole New World," Transportation Science 54(1), 2020. https://doi.org/10.1287/trsc.2019.0937 paywalled; summarized at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200124124510.htm

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    $\begingroup$ Actually, flying passengers for revenue started in 1910 with an enviable record of zero fatalities until 1914 when the aircraft were pressed into military service. Heavier-than-air airlines started from 1914 on with many more to follow. $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2020 at 13:25
  • $\begingroup$ DELAG is fascinating. Let me ask directly: is wikipedia's assertion about the Deutschland's "heavy from loss of hydrogen caused by the rapid ascent" bogus? Rapid ascent into cooler air would increase, not decrease, lift; and it was still too low to trigger its overpressure valves. $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2020 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ I have a book that says LZ7 it climbed above its maximum altitude and vented some hydrogen. I think that for the press demonstration flight they filled the gas bags almost completely, and the journey so far did not exceed 600 m. The storm lifted it above 1050 m. With a failed engine not much dynamic lift was possible (so it went up uncontrollably) and a snow storm added so much snow (not just water) to the envelope that it went down. This, however, happened in slow motion as the ship got stuck in the treetops and passengers and crew evacuated with a rope ladder. $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2020 at 18:23

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