Commercial air travel safer than ever: MIT study

Commercial air travel safer than ever: MIT study

Commercial air travel has become safer than ever, according to a study that tracked the continued decrease in passenger fatalities around the world.

The study, published in the journal Transportation Science, found that between 2008 and 2017, airline passenger fatalities fell significantly compared to the previous decade.

Globally, that rate is now one death per 7.9 million passenger boardings, compared to a death per 2.7 million boardings during the period 1998-2007, according to the researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US.

They noted that the commercial airline fatality risk was one death per 750,000 boardings during 1978-1987.

"The worldwide risk of being killed had been dropping by a factor of two every decade. Not only has that continued in the last decade, the improvement is closer to a factor of three," said Arnold Barnett, an MIT scholar.

"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 really quite impressive and is important for people to bear in mind," Barnett said.

The study also reveals that there is discernible regional variation in airline safety around the world.

It found that the nations housing the lowest-risk airlines are the US, the members of the European Union, China, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel.

The aggregate fatality risk among those nations was one death per 33.1 million passenger boardings during 2008-2017, the researchers said.

For airlines in the second set of countries, with an intermediate risk level, the rate is one death per 7.4 million boardings during 2008-2017, they said.

This group includes many countries in Asia as well as some countries in South America and the Middle East, according to the researchers.

For a third and higher-risk set of developing countries, including some in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the death risk during 2008-2017 was one per 1.2 million passenger boardings, they noted.

This was an improvement from one death per 400,000 passenger boardings during 1998-2007, the researchers found.

"The two most conspicuous changes compared to previous decades were sharp improvements in China and in Eastern Europe," said Barnett.

Overall, Barnett suggests, the rate of fatalities has declined far faster than public fears about flying.

"Flying has gotten safer and safer. It's a factor of 10 safer than it was 40 years ago, although I bet anxiety levels have not gone down that much. I think it's good to have the facts," Barnett said.

He used data from the World Bank to measure the number of passengers carried, which is now roughly four billion per year.

The research also includes historical data showing that even in today's higher-risk areas for commercial aviation, the fatality rate is better than it was in the leading air-travel countries just a few decades in the past.

"The risk now in the higher-risk countries is basically the risk we used to have 40-50 years ago" in the safest air-travel countries, Barnett noted.

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