I fly more than 400,000 miles a year, and I’m on an airplane about 280 days a year. I can’t tell you how many people have warned me about tempting fate. So I am more than a little familiar with the fears associated with air travel, as well as the realities. And there's a huge difference.
How safe is flying, really? It is, in fact, the safest form of travel. According to the National Safety Council, you’re more likely to die as a pedestrian, on a motorcycle, in a car, on a bus, riding an animal or animal-drawn vehicle, on a train, on a streetcar or on watercraft.
Some other numbers are even more impressive. On average, air traffic controllers in the United States handle 64 million takeoffs and landings a year. On any given day, more than 87,000 flights are in U.S. skies (only one-third of those are commercial aircraft; the rest are cargo, private planes, etc.). In spite of all that air traffic, the National Transportation Safety Board has reported only 49 deadly U.S. airline accidents since 1982.
According to the handy Web site PlaneCrashInfo.com, which culls information from OAG Aviation Solutions, the NTSB and other airline and data sources, the chance of being killed on a flight is about 8 million to 1. The other way to look at it is if a passenger were to board a random flight once a day, statistically it would take 21,000 years before he or she were killed in a plane crash.
But when a major plane crash occurs, it's a perfect storm — usually a complete failure of common sense and protocol. And it's typically followed by a spike in fear among the flying public.
The most recent incident that sparked fear was the crash in Buffalo, N.Y., of Continental Airlines Flight 3407, a Dash 8 Q400 Bombardier aircraft operated by Colgan Air. In this case, both pilots were underpaid and undertrained, the co-pilot was exhausted from flying all night to get to her flight, and it was painfully clear that these two crew members were not aware of the gravity of the icing conditions they were flying in. Cockpit recordings showed that the pilots had disregarded the concept of “sterile cockpit conversation.” Despite previous recommendations by the NTSB, the plane was not outfitted with a slow-speed alerter that would have warned the crew that they were going to have an aerodynamic stall unless they did something quickly.
Fifty people were killed, including the pilots, crew, passengers and one person on the ground.
Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger’s miraculous Hudson River landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in January drew worldwide admiration and brought attention to another travel fear: bird strikes. A bird strike is a potentially catastrophic situation. On this particular flight, a flock of Canada geese took out the engines of the Airbus A320, forcing the quick-thinking pilot to ditch the plane in the Hudson.
After this incident, under public pressure, the Federal Aviation Administration publicly released data on bird and wildlife collisions. So how many are there? The FAA database, which the agency acknowledges is incomplete, contains more than 89,000 records dating back to 1990. It revealed that New York’s JFK had the most incidents, with 30 cases since 2000 that resulted in either substantial damage to or actual destruction of a plane. Sacramento International Airport came in second with 28 incidents. Most concerning was that the number of incidents had climbed due to the increased population of migratory birds. Worldwide, there are an estimated 8,000 bird strikes annually.