Air Travel Is Still the Safest, but There Is Room for Improvement

Early Sunday, reports surfaced that another airliner from Southeast Asia has vanished from the skies.

AirAsia flight QZ8501, with 162 passengers on board, has not been heard from since its last radio contact at 6:17 a.m. local Indonesia time. The passengers aboard the aircraft are from six countries and include 17 children. The last radio transmission from the plane was a request from the pilot to fly at a higher altitude due to bad weather.

As we go to press, no sign of the plane has been found, despite intensive search-and-rescue efforts. We can only imagine the anxiety and pain being suffered by the families of the missing as they await news of the plane’s whereabouts. We are hopeful that the search-and-rescue efforts will be easier than those of flight MH370 since the area where the plane disappeared is a heavily trafficked air and sea lane. Tragically, no sign of MH370 has been found since it vanished in March.

Nevertheless, despite the latest tragedy, air travel still remains one of the safest methods of travel, far safer than journeying by automobile, bus or train. According to one estimate by MIT statistician Arnold Barnett, a person would have to fly every day for the next 63,000 years in order to have a good chance at being injured or killed in a plane accident. The odds of injury or fatality as a result of a car accident are 10 to 40 times greater than those of traveling by plane. In the United States, car accidents resulted in 33,561 fatalities in 2012, or the equivalent of the passenger load of five Boeing 737s killed every week, with many thousands more injured. That same year there were zero fatalities on any flights of U.S. commercial carriers.

Of course, more travel is done by car than by plane, so it is not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, but even from a mileage perspective, it is far safer to be on a plane than in a car. For each 100 million miles traveled, there is, on average, a little more than one car fatality in the U.S. compared to approximately .007 for air travel. In fact, the main risk with air travel is the drive to the airport, which is fraught with much more risk than taking to the air.

Airplane accidents are more startling and sensational because these tragedies involve many individuals at once, and it sends shudders down everyone’s spine to think of a plane crashing, given its speed and altitude. Automobile accidents generally affect a few individuals and their frequency has become something we have, unfortunately, become used to. While U.S. commercial airlines have made incredible strides in safety during the last 50 years, the auto industry, much to its discredit, has always fought more stringent safety measures, for years fighting the installation of seat belts and air bags.

That doesn’t mean commercial air travel can’t improve. It’s bewildering and inexplicable how, with all the sophisticated technology embedded in aircraft they can still disappear or that, despite the advanced automated guidance systems, pilots can still botch takeoffs and landings. These frightening incidents should be a call to airplane manufacturers to strive harder to build aircraft with more fail-safe systems, and to nations to have better coordination as planes cross from the airspace of one into that of another.

Beyond building better planes, there are other ways to enhance safety. There are frightening statistics regarding the fatigue pilots and crew face while flying through time zones. A number of surveys have shown that too many pilots have dozed off while at the controls or have committed serious errors of judgment while fatigued. One NASA study of 1,400 pilots in 1999 found that 80 percent dozed off while at the controls at one time or another during their careers. The 2006 crash in Buffalo of a Colgan Air commuter flight has been linked to the fatigue of the doomed plane’s co-pilot.

Overworked and fatigued air traffic controllers have also been of concern to safety experts. As air travel keeps increasing, the burden on air traffic controllers has become greater, with many still using outdated radar technology to track flights. In 2006, a controller at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport fell asleep and didn’t respond to repeated radio calls from planes in the air.

Ultimately, our fates are solely in the Hands of Hashem, but when it come to the requisite hishtadlus, air travel is still the safest way to travel. Tragedies like the latest one to hit Southeast Asia remind us that airlines and airplane manufacturers still have opportunities to make it even safer.