In the wake of a highly-publicized travel disaster, flight anxiety tends to increase. While these events are tragic, experts say they rarely affect the overall safety of transportation.
EgyptAir flight MS804, which was carrying 66 passengers, was downed on Thursday morning over the Mediterranean Sea on its route from Paris to Cairo. While details of what happened are still forthcoming, debris found on Greek islands suggest the plane crashed, and officials have said that terrorism hasn’t been ruled out as a likely cause.
Major news events like this can create a short-term slump in confidence in airlines and airplane manufacturers, says Ian Savage, an economics professor at Northwestern University, however, they have little long-term influence. Also, air travel has become significantly safer over the past few decades, Savage says. “Survivability of airplane crashes has become considerably better,” he says, adding that statistically speaking, aviation and bus travel have proven the safest modes of transportation in the U.S.
The incidence of plane crashes decreased 25% between 2010 and 2015, from 162 crashes to 122 crashes world-wide, according to the Geneva-based Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archive. Fatal aviation crashes in the U.S. thus far in 2016 have been in helicopters or private planes, according to data from the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB data doesn’t take into account flights that originate outside the U.S., however recent incidents like the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH730, which was carrying nearly 230 passengers, in 2014, and the crash of Germanwings flight 9525, which killed 150 people, in 2015 have created more unrest over international commercial travel after a relatively quiet period for major airplane accidents.
In terms of risk, there has been about one death per 100 million miles traveled by U.S. air carriers in the past 20 years, according to NTSB data.
In a paper published in 2013, Savage found that Americans had a one in 6,800 chance of dying in a transportation accident within the U.S. between 2000 and 2009, accounting for 1.78% of annual American deaths. The majority — 85% — were caused by private vehicles, such as cars and motorcycles, while the rest were in commercial or public transportation accidents. Savage’s data didn’t account for terrorist attacks or intentional crashes.
“In public transportation accidents, passengers are victimized randomly,” Savage told MarketWatch, saying that in highway accidents, there is a “disproportionate risk” for drivers engaging in reckless behavior like drunk or distracted driving.
While deaths caused by airplane accidents have steadily decreased over time, deaths caused by motor vehicles increased by 8% year-over-year in 2015, the highest in 50 years, according to the National Safety Council. More than 38,000 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents last year and 4.4 million were injured, costing $412.1 billion in damages, according to NSC estimates.