On the Fear of Flying Today

My friend Laura, also an aviation enthusiast, has written a few guest posts for me to publish, which I gladly agreed to, this one on the fear of flying. Admittedly, various things do cross my mind when I step onto an airplane – I look at the age of the pilots, the weather outside, and the condition of the aircraft. I worry when there are bumps, and I cringe when I see the wings flex. But, it’s the safest form of transportation there is, and one that I’ll continue to enjoy for years to come, even with that doubt that I think is natural to run through everyone’s mind.

Over the past year, high-profile airline accidents seem to monopolize the news cycle. Malaysia Airlines 370 went missing over a year ago, though that’s hard to believe – it dominated the news cycle for months. Four months later, another Malaysia flight crashed in the Ukraine. Not even six months after that, an Air Asia flight went missing and is thought to have crashed in the Java Sea. Most recently, of course, a Germanwings Airbus crashed in the French Alps, presumably killing 150.

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High profile news is meant to create fear and make viewers question how such terrible events could happen to them. Are airline accidents becoming more common? Are we in danger every time we step on an airplane? Our minds circle through the old adages like “you’re in more danger driving a car than you are on an airplane!” Are those true? Exactly how common are airline accidents, anyway?

Despite the news and the exaggerated reporting, airline accidents remain uncommon and decreasing with every passing year. Let’s examine exactly how many and how common airline accidents are, why they happen, and finally – if you’re still worried – how to keep yourself the most safe.

OAG, an aviation analytical company, has compiled your chances of being an airline fatality using data from 1993-2012 on the world’s 78 major world airlines. Worldwide, the odds of being on an airline flight in which a fatality occurs is one in 3.4 million. The odds of you actually being a fatality on an airline flight is one in 4.7 million. Even considering that these statistics don’t include the recent high-profile accidents, the statistics are almost incomprehensible.

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To put these numbers in perspective, we can look at statistics compiled using data from the World Health Organization, US Census Bureau, and National Center for Health Statistics. These numbers are for the United States only and are taken from the 2000’s. Going with the traditional comparison between airline accidents and car accidents – your chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident is one in 112. That is an understandable statistic. Everyone eventually dies, and your chance of that happening by car accident is just under 1%. So yes, your odds of suffering a fatality is much greater when you drive to the store for milk than when you board that plane to visit the family for the holidays.

On the lighter side, the chance of you dying as a result of hornets, wasps, or bees is one in 75,852. Your chance of dying as a result of legal execution is one in 96,203. And your chance of dying from a lightning strike is one in 136,011. You have a 35% higher chance of getting killed by lightening than you do in an airline accident.

But, all that being said, airline accidents do occur. In 2014, there were 526 fatalities due to airline events – that includes military aircraft, which many statistics exclude. There are many reasons airline incidents occur – including bird strikes, air traffic controller error, cabin or cargo fires, design flaw, deliberate sabotage, hijacking, fuel shortage, lightning, and pilot incapacitation, to name a few. Recently, Boeing released a very comprehensive report of worldwide statistical summaries of commercial jet plane accidents from 1959-2013. Boeing planes are the great majority of aircraft in service – out of 660 million takeoffs since 1959, 482 have been on Boeing aircraft.

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There were 31 incidents involving Boeing aircraft in 2013, and there were 62 onboard fatalities as a result of those incidents. Thirteen incidents resulted in hull loss, which Boeing describes as total destruction of the plane. From 2004-2013, 47% of all accidents occur during final approach and landing phases of flight, and 40% of all onboard fatalities occur during that same time – alarming, considering that only 4% of all flight time is spent in these two phases. Only 10% of incidents occur during cruising phase – so that frightening turbulence probably isn’t anything to be terribly concerned about!

Now that it’s been shown that airline incidents and especially airline fatalities are highly unlikely, there are still ways to maximize your safety when flying. Towards the beginning of this article, it was stated that the chance of being killed on an airplane was one in 4.7 million. That is true, including all 78 of the world’s leading airlines. However, when that statistic is re-calculated using only the top 39 safety-rated airlines, the number goes to one in 19.8 million. Toping the world’s safest airlines is Australia-based Qantas. British Airways and Lufthansa are also near the top. Some of the most safe and also economical airlines are Alaska Airlines, Virgin America, and JetBlue. The most dangerous airlines in the world tend to be small airlines in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East – Nepal Airlines and Kam Air (based in Afghanistan). Flying safe, highly rated airlines is the best way to maximize safety. Staying seated and following all instructions is, of course, another. If you’re extra concerned about the absolute safest seat on the plane, Popular Mechanics performed a lengthy test and study to find the safest seats – and they’re all in the rear of the plane. In the event of an incident, you have a 69% of survival in the very rear of the plane, compared to only 49% in first or business class. Your odds rise to the mid-50% range when just ahead of or over the wing. An aisle seat will up your chances of survival about 5% over an inner seat. And finally, sitting within five rows of an exit is the most important seating decision that you can make, statistically.

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Flying is one of the safest types of transportation in the world, and the chance of any kind of accident is remote. The chance of surviving such an event, if it occurs, is very high. When you have your next chance to board an airplane, take it!

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  1. says

    It is not just a question of physical safety. For many, it is a question of emotional safety. What happens if there is a panic attack? What can stop claustrophobia? It doesn’t matter how reasonable it is to fly, the emotional mind has a different logic in which “seeing is believing” and it appears there is nothing holding the plane up. And, “feeling is believing” so when afraid, there MUST be danger.

    Since reason is not going to stop emotional problems, what can. Having worked for over 30 years with fearful fliers, both as an airline captain and as a licensed therapist, what I’ve learned that works – and works every time – is in my book “SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying,” recently named “Amazon Editors’ Favorite 2014 Book.”

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