The past 10 years have been the best in the country’s aviation history with 153 fatalities. That’s two deaths for every 100 million passengers on commercial flights, according to an Associated Press analysis of government accident data.
The improvement is remarkable. Just a decade earlier, at the time the safest, passengers were 10 times as likely to die when flying on an American plane. The risk of death was even greater during the start of the jet age, with 1,696 people dying — 133 out of every 100 million passengers — from 1962 to 1971. The figures exclude acts of terrorism.
Sitting in a pressurized, aluminum tube seven miles above the ground may never seem like the most-natural thing. But consider this: You are more likely to die driving to the airport than flying across the country. There are more than 30,000 motor-vehicle deaths each year, a mortality rate eight times greater than that in planes.
“I wouldn’t say air crashes of passenger airliners are a thing of the past. They’re simply a whole lot more rare than they used to be,” says Todd Curtis, a former safety engineer with Boeing and director of the Airsafe.com Foundation.
The improvements came even as the industry went through a miserable financial period, losing $54.5 billion in the past decade. Just to stay afloat, airlines eliminated meals and added fees for checked luggage.
But safety remained a priority. No advertisement of tropical beaches can supplant the image of charred metal scattered across a field.
There are still some corners of the world where flying is risky. Russia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia have particularly high rates of deadly crashes. Russia had several fatal crashes in the past year, including one that killed several prominent hockey players. Africa only accounts for 3 percent of world air traffic but had 14 percent of fatal crashes.
Still, 2011 was a good year to fly. It had the second-fewest number of fatalities worldwide, according to the Flight Safety Foundation, with 507 people dying in crashes. Seven out of 28 planes in fatal crashes were on airlines already prohibited from flying into European Union because of known safety problems. (There were fewer fatalities in 2004 — 323 — but there were also fewer people flying then.)
There are a number of reasons for the improvements.
— The industry has learned from the past. New planes and engines are designed with prior mistakes in mind. Investigations of accidents have led to changes in procedures to ensure the same missteps don’t occur again.
— Better sharing of information. New databases allow pilots, airlines, plane manufactures and regulators to track incidents and near misses. Computers pick up subtle trends. For instance, a particular runway might have a higher rate of aborted landings when there is fog. Regulators noticing this could improve lighting and add more time between landings.
— Safety audits by outside firms. The International Air Transport Association, an industry trade group, started an audit program in 2003. Airlines prove to the industry and each other that they have proper maintenance and safety procedures. It’s also a way for airlines to seek lower insurance premiums, which have also dropped over the past 10 years.
— An experienced workforce. Air traffic controllers, pilots and maintenance crews — particularly in North America and Europe — have been on the job for decades. Their experience is crucial when split-second decisions are made and for instilling a culture of safety in younger employees. Former US Airways Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger — who spent three decades as an airline pilot — was praised for his skill after safely ditching a plane in the Hudson River in 2009. Both engines died because of a bird strike but all 155 passengers and crew survived.
— Luck. Safety experts discount the effect of chance. However, it takes just one big accident — especially now with mega-jets such as the Airbus A380, which is able to carry up to 853 passengers — to ruin an otherwise good period for safety.
“Was Chesley Sullenberger lucky or skillful?” says Perry Flint, a spokesman with the International Air Transport Association. “It was luck that it was daylight, but how many geese do you know that are flying south in the pitch black of two in the morning? So it was also luck that he hit them. Bad luck.”
The most recent fatal U.S. crash was Colgan Air Flight 3407, a regional flight operating under the name Continental Connection. The 2009 crash killed all 49 people on board and a man in the house the plane hit.
In fact, all fatal crashes in the U.S. in the past decade occurred on regional airlines, which are separate companies flying smaller planes under brands such as United Express, American Eagle and Delta Connection. The most recent deadly crash involving a larger airline was American Airlines Flight 587 in 2001. It crashed moments after taking off from New York, killing 265.
There have been some near misses.
In April, a Southwest Airlines aircraft had a rapid loss of cabin pressure after part of the fuselage ruptured, leaving a five-foot-long hole in the ceiling. There were no serious injuries.
The prior year, a Southwest jet came within 200 feet of colliding with a small Cessna at a California airport. In December 2009, an American Airlines jet landing in the rain in Jamaica was unable to stop on the runway, crashing through an airport fence, crossing a street, finally stopping on a beach. And in December 2005, a Southwest jet skidded off a Chicago runway. No passengers died, but a 9-year-old boy riding in a passing car was killed.
A poor economy might also have improved safety.
Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, says that during a boom period, airlines tend to quickly grow. That, he says, can mean weaker standards for safety and for pilots.
“We tend to see people being pushed forward perhaps a little too early, before they’re ready,” Voss says. “There’s not as much time for captains to create new captains by tapping a guy on the shoulder and telling him when he’s out of line.”