Fly the Friendly (and Safe) Skies

August is the busiest vacation travel month for the nation’s airlines as millions of Americans jet off with their families to long-treasured hideaways for a week (or hopefully two) of work release.

But almost two years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, many travelers are still skittish about the safety of the skies. The airlines report that even though the worst may finally be over for the financial miseries of the airlines, passenger levels have still not recovered to their pre-Sept. 11, 2001, levels. As a result the major airlines lost some $11 billion last year and needed a multi-billion-taxpayer bailout to continue flying.

Polls indicate that fear of flying is still a major factor behind the reduction in passengers.

But for those who are brave enough to buckle their seat belts and place their tray tables in their upright and locked positions, there’s some very encouraging news: Last year there were fewer airline fatalities than at anytime in the history of commercial aviation. The Federal Aviation Administration reports that 2002 was the “safest year on record” and that there were no major commercial airline crashes and no passenger fatalities.

If you are like my cousin and suffer from the common neurosis of fear of flying, it turns out that about the safest place to be on the planet at any given time is on an airplane. Statistically speaking, commercial airplane crashes-whether caused by bad weather, pilot error, engine failure, air traffic mistakes, or even hijackers-are extremely rare. We are now in what is being called the “golden era of safety” for air travel and yet few travelers know it. Part of this improved safety performance is a result of better pilot training, and part a result of modern safety equipment, such as the ground proximity warning system that alerts pilots to when the plane is flying at a perilous altitude.

Over the past five years an average of fewer than 500 people have died annually in commercial airplane crashes. That is a miniscule number of fatalities out of 600 million passengers who board an airplane each year. It turns out that if you fly just once or twice a year, your odds of dying in a plane crash are roughly equivalent to your odds of walking down the street and being hit on the head by a plane falling on you or getting struck and killed by a puck at a hockey game.

We Americans have a hard time properly assessing risks of alternative choices. Psychological studies indicate that we tend to be more afraid of rare, but major catastrophes-an earthquake or a bombing-than more commonplace and deadly risks, like smoking cigarettes or working on a ladder. Because we can’t balance risks very well, we often make dumb lifestyle decisions. A lot of people drive rather than take a plane to keep safe, even though each year there are roughly 100 times more deaths on the highways than in the airways. If you drive a motorcycle, your risk per mile traveled is about 200 times greater than from flying.

Of course, few Americans have heard any of this good news about the safety of flying because the press rarely reports good news, which to the media is a contradiction in terms. The rare airplane crash commands days of headlines, as we are bombarded with pictures of blood and gore and mangled ruins and grieving survivors. But the news of no airline crashes during the year draws a yawn from the newspaper editors and TV networks. We are bombarded with media chatter night after night about the dangerous times we live in, even though almost everything in life is safer today than 30 or 40 years ago. The death rate from accidents-on the job, at home, or even in the skies-has fallen by almost half since 1960. Your chance of being killed or injured in a catastrophic accident-like a terrorist attack, a hurricane, or an explosion-is one third what it was in 1950.

Mark Twain once quipped that “it’s not what you don’t know that is so dangerous, it’s what you do know that just ain’t so.” Americans would be a lot healthier if they would simply stop worrying themselves to death over unfounded phobias. Airplanes are the safest mode of travel. On this the facts are indisputable.

One last point: airline deregulation is often blamed for compromising public safety any time there is a major commercial airline crash. I’m still waiting for these critics of free markets to trumpet the virtues of deregulation now for delivering a perfect safety record.