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How Safe Is Air Travel in 2020, Really?

By Barbara Peterson

01.13.20

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Fatalities from major plane crashes in 2019 were less than half those in 2018.

Photo by Decha Kiatlatchanon/Shutterstock

Fatalities from major plane crashes in 2019 were less than half those in 2018.

Despite Boeing’s ongoing woes, and the tragic Ukraine crash at the beginning of 2020, air travel is still extremely safe.

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While the Boeing 737 Max crisis dominated headlines for much of last year, most aviation safety experts insist that 2019 was one of the safest years ever.

The statistics bear them out: Despite the Ethiopian Air crash that led to the grounding of Boeing 737 Max aircraft in the U.S. and abroad, the number of deaths in major plane crashes around the globe fell by more than half in 2019 from the year before, to 257 people in a total of eight fatal accidents. That compares to 534 deaths in 13 fatal accidents in 2018, according to a report that was recently released by the To70 aviation consultancy firm. And AirlineRatings.com, an airline safety and service review site, gave a majority of the world’s airlines good marks in its annual safety ranking of 405 scheduled airlines.

But just one week into 2020, this upbeat outlook was cast into doubt with the crash of a Ukraine International Boeing 737-800 in Tehran. All 176 people aboard the Kiev-bound plane were killed, the worst toll on a scheduled jet flight since the 2018 crash of a Lion Air 737 Max (the first of two events that led to the Boeing 737 Max grounding). The Ukraine International plane, which crashed shortly after takeoff, was only three years old—but Iran has admitted to shooting down the aircraft with a ballistic missile, an act Iranian officials have attributed to “human error.”

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Safety experts point out that commercial plane crashes are so rare that one or two major incidents can skew the statistics; until this week, for example, Ukraine International had never had a fatal crash.

The world’s safest airlines

This year’s top 20 safest airlines list from AirlineRatings is based on a seven-point rating system that includes not just crash data but also more specific information about individual incidents, fleet age, pilot training, financial performance, and other factors. The list was headed by Australian flag carrier Qantas (a longtime winner) and also included international heavyweights like Emirates, Lufthansa, Singapore, and Virgin Atlantic and Australia. Top-ranked U.S. airlines included Alaska, American, and United.

Aviation experts agree that a strong safety culture and an active regulatory role play an important part in the results. “Countries that have a serious government oversight and operations that provide meaningful training to pilots and others, have an accident rate that is outstanding,” said John Goglia, an aviation consultant and former member of the United States’ National Transportation Safety Board. “Those countries that don’t put that kind of effort into their operations have experienced some serious problems.”

But while older planes have generally been considered more accident-prone, the Max problems have raised concerns about new technology. The To70 report stated that fatal accidents in 2018 and 2019 that led to the grounding raised questions about how aviation authorities approve aircraft designs and about how much pilot training is needed on new systems. The firm reported that it expects that the 737 Max will gain permission to fly again in 2020.

The odds are in fliers’ favor

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Statistically, your chances of being in a fatal plane crash are extremely low, better than 1 in 12 million, according to some estimates. The accident rate for large planes in commercial air travel last year fell to 0.18 fatal accidents per million flights, from 0.30 accidents per million flights in 2018, according to the To70 report. That translates into one fatal crash for every 5.58 million flights.

The historic low was in 2017, which saw only two fatal air accidents, involving regional turboprops, which resulted in the loss of 13 lives.

Meanwhile, until current grounding orders are lifted, the Max crisis will continue to be part of the conversation on air safety.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story. This story was originally published on January 10, 2020, and was updated on January 13, 2020, to reflect current information.

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