Modern air travel is safer than ever before, finds MIT study

Remarkable safety advancements over recent decades have enable air travel to exceed safety benchmarks.

Based on findings from an MIT research paper, commercial air travel has never been as safe as it is today. This statement draws from data examining the drop in passenger fatalities worldwide. To grasp the magnitude of this improvement, consider the following:

  • Between 1988-1997: 1 death per 1.3 million boardings
  • Between 1998-2007: 1 death per 2.7 million boardings
  • Between 2008-2017: 1 death per 7.9 million boardings

If you delve further into the annals of aviation history, during 1968-1977, the risk was one death per 350,000 boardings, which escalated to one death per 750,000 boardings between 1978-1987.

MIT scholar, Arnold Barnett, notes, “The pace of improvement has not slackened at all even as flying has gotten ever safer and further gains become harder to achieve. That is truly impressive.”

Regional variations in airline safety

Interestingly, not every corner of the globe experiences aviation safety uniformly. Some nations are naturally ahead of others in maintaining the safety of their skies. The MIT study pinpoints nations like the U.S., members of the European Union, China, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel as the safest. Their collective fatality risk stood at one death per 33.1 million passenger boardings during the 2008-2017 period.

Another set of nations, which have rapidly industrialised and improved their life expectancy and GDP per capita, have also showcased commendable growth in aviation safety. This group, featuring many Asian countries, along with select nations in South America and the Middle East, marked a fatality rate of one death per 7.4 million boardings in the same period.

However, certain developing nations, spanning Asia, Africa, and Latin America, though improved, still have a ways to go. Their fatality risk was one per 1.2 million passenger boardings in 2008-2017.

Barnett, who serves as the George Eastman Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, draws attention to China and Eastern Europe’s notable improvements. These regions have even outperformed some nations from the lowest-risk category in terms of aviation safety advancements.

Public perception vs reality

One could argue that the perception of flying remains somewhat disengaged from reality. Barnett suggests, “Flying is a factor of 10 safer than 40 years ago. Still, anxiety levels probably haven’t diminished to the same degree.” His hope? Educating the public with facts.

As an expert in aviation safety and risk, Barnett consistently seeks to put accident statistics into perspective. He believes that while year-to-year numbers can fluctuate, viewing trends over decades offers clearer insights into the progress of commercial airline safety.

Understanding and appreciating modern air travel

Few could argue that the experience of flying, from booking tickets to the visa application process and navigating crowded airports, hasn’t evolved over the years. Yet, the MIT study recently highlighted an even more remarkable transformation – the remarkable safety advancements in air travel over recent decades.

Barnett understands the intrinsic fears people harbour about flying. After all, his foray into this research was a bid to “sublimate [his] fears in a way that might be publishable.”

Yet, it’s crucial to understand the advancements made in aviation safety. In Barnett’s words, “The risk is so low that being afraid to fly is akin to fearing a supermarket visit due to the unlikely event of the ceiling collapsing.”

So, the next time you’re boarding a flight or assisting someone with a visa application for travel, remember – the skies are friendlier and safer than they’ve ever been.

Vey Law

Vey Law is a reporter at Breakthrough.

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