Who Wants to Die While Flying?

7 11 2016

I consider myself an optimist. This is pretty important when you understand the vast array of incredible risks that we all take every single day. I could step in front of a bus. I could get t-boned by a distracted driver. I could be side swiped by a car turning across the bike lane. Or I could be one of those rare cases where there is an aviation catastrophe.


travel destinationsI believe in managing this risk by calculating (sometimes emotionally) the cost-to-benefit ratio. How much positive gain will I get from engaging in this risky behavior? When it comes to driving to work everyday, the benefit is pretty great- or else I’d be unemployed and homeless. When it comes to bungee jumping, the 30 second thrill is not worth the risk of death, at least for myself. Maybe I’ll change my mind when I’m eighty. Flying, however, is the best way to get to some of the innumerable treasures that our world has to offer, and as a cultural-minded travel fiend, the reward is far greater than the risk. I think…


iataIATA (International Air Transport Association) represents approximately 260 airlines globally, comprising 83% of global air traffic. According to the IATA, “The 2015 global jet accident rate… was the equivalent of one major accident for every 3.1 million flights. This was… a 30% improvement compared to the previous five-year rate (2010-2014) of 0.46 hull loss accidents per million jet flights.” They also inform us that there were 136 fatalities last year, resulting from four turboprop accidents.

We worry about the risk of flying, even though 865 times more people die in automotive vehicle crashes. 

travel-safetyc0d9ce5ac576df97483b6a43b350f5feIn contrast with the 136 fatalities from plane crashes, “38,300 people were killed on U.S. roads, and 4.4 million were seriously injured[i], meaning 2015 likely was the deadliest driving year since 2008,” according to the National Safety Council. (On a separate note, I bet their logo is being revamped, at least in Colorado, after slews of stoners came knocking on NSC’s door looking for herbal relief). These increasing numbers make sense, as the economy has recovered, and more people are working, along with decreasing gas prices allowing more leisure driving, our risks naturally go up with more cars on the road.


At first blush, I read the IATA stats and thought to myself, “Oh, I actually expected that number to be higher than that.” Until I read on… IATA continues, “The loss of Germanwings 9525 (pilot suicide) and Metrojet 9268 (suspected terrorism) that resulted in the deaths of 374 passengers and crew are tragedies that occurred in 2015. They are not, however, included in the accident statistics as they are classified as deliberate acts of unlawful interference.”


Now, I don’t know about you, but in a global economy where more and more acts of terrorism are making the news, this certainly gut-checks as a very real and serious risk that should be included in my risk assessment every time I get on a plane. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that anyone who ‘looks like a terrorist’ in my security line is deserving of interrogation, and indeed we need to do more work to end racial profiling. Rather than focusing on who may be increasing my risk, for the sake of this article, I prefer to focus on the numbers. That flight statistic above jumps to 510 deaths if you include those two horrible tragedies, which, although devastating for those who suffered, is still dramatically lower than vehicular deaths.


So, flying is still relatively safe. But how can I make it even safer?


Not all airlines are created equal. The risks inherent with flying may dramatically go up depending on who you choose to fly with. Since we know that the risk of actually dying is relatively low, we can broaden out focus to the other implications- injuries, delays, and slight inconveniences due to mechanical failures either on the ground or in flight.


One airline is 4x more likely to have a major breakdown during your flight. Do you know which one it is?


According to a recent Tampa Bay Times article, Allegiant airline, while quite affordable, is one to avoid. “In 2015, Allegiant jets were forced to make unexpected landings at least 77 times for serious mechanical failures.” Thankfully, none of these resulted in fatalities, but the sensation of thinking you’re about to die, would surely start your vacation off on the wrong foot.


The Times continues, “Forty-two of Allegiant’s 86 planes broke down in mid-flight at least once in 2015. Among them were 15 forced to land by failing engines, nine by overheating tail compartments and six by smoke or the smell of something burning.”


While this is enough to make me decide to pay the extra $32.58 for a slightly more reliable carrier, how can you know which choice is a better one? Especially when making connections internationally on airlines you’re not familiar with, what can you do to minimize your risk of delays, cancellations, and emotional trauma of living through a mechanical failure in mid-flight?


Safety by region

The good news is, overall, the risks are improving. Per IATA again, almost all regions exhibited improved safety performance in 2015 compared to the respective five-year rate 2010-2014, (North America being the exception) :

Jet hull loss rates by region of operator

  1. Africa (3.49 compared to a five-year rate of 3.69)
  2. Asia-Pacific (0.21 compared to 0.56)
  3. CIS (1.88 compared to 3.14)
  4. Europe (0.15 compared to 0.18)
  5. Latin America and the Caribbean (0.39 compared to 0.92)
  6. Middle East-North Africa (0.00 compared to 1.00)
  7. North America (0.32 compared to 0.13)
  8. North Asia (0.00 compared to a 0.06).

Looking at these regional comparisons, I’d suggest dong a bit more research before booking a flight in Africa. The above numbers are for jet planes, and as we learned earlier, turboprop planes are far riskier. So what about those numbers globally?

  1. Africa (4.53 compared to a five-year rate of 18.20);
  2. Asia-Pacific (2.07 compared to 2.36);
  3. CIS (0.00 compared to 17.83),
  4. Europe (0.00 compared to 1.63);
  5. Latin America and the Caribbean (0.00 compared to 5.38),
  6. Middle East-North Africa (0.00 compared to 13.88);
  7. North America 0.51 compared to 1.38).

Again, Africa is statistically a far riskier place to fly, if wanting to avoid plane failures. However, the IATA provides additional insight, breaking down one region into far more interesting data, stating that, “North Asia had the worst performance (25.19 compared to 5.90), reflecting two regional hull losses, one of which was fatal,”  which also reflects far fewer total prop plane flights in that area.


What about XYZ Airline?


I recently booked a flight to Sri Lanka, where I am presenting at the International Conference on Sustainable Built Environment. In order to get there, I had several options for how to fly and where to layover. For weeks I did new flight searches on Mondays and Tuesdays (when most flights are slightly cheaper), and the layovers and prices kept changing. One week the best option was Istanbul (which I vetoed based on the terrorist attack there), one was Abu Dhabi, one was Qatar- all were regions I’m vastly unfamiliar with, and would need to research to be safe being:

  1. an American
  2. a woman
  3. a gay person

2016-11-07_8-48-56I almost pulled the trigger on Abu Dhabi, until I researched the airline, only to read horrible reviews about constant delays, cancellations, and lack of communication with stranded passengers. I learned this through AirlineQuality.com, a website for frequent travelers to rate airlines subjectively based on their experiences.


Ultimately, as the dates grew closer and prices started to rise, I made a split second decision to buy a flight that saved me $500 below any other option. I checked out the airline review, which was far more positive than the other options. I clicked the submit button, and it was done. In December, we will be flying Turkish Airline, with a 9 hour layover in Istanbul. 


We had talked about this option weeks earlier, and opted to not take it because of the risks. Just earlier this year, 43 people died in a tragic attack at the airport. This is not the first airport bomb, of course. And after each incident, the wounded entity rallies support to beef up security, ensuring that this target will be far less likely to be targeted again. Instead, the insidious terrorist groups will likely move to an easier target… at least, that is part of my personal risk assessment. With this in mind, and after reading such terrible reviews of the other affordable options, I got swept up in the rush of finding a cheap flight, and just went for it… perhaps without fully thinking it through.


So… my flight should be relatively smooth, but what about the layover? Will we dare to travel outside the airport, into the heart of Istanbul? Will we be at higher risk of being targeted? Is it worth it to see the awe-inspiring Hagia Sophia?? We will likely never have the chance to do so again…

Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya), The Church of Holy Wisdom,

I’ll report back in January to let you know what it’s like to be an American woman traveling around Istanbul for a day with you wife.




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