Data on U.S. airline crash fatalities: Is 2009 a terrible year for air travel?

A few minutes ago, I saw the following news flash from Breaking News Online jump across my screen:

BULLETIN — FAA: MID-AIR COLLISSION [sic] IN THE PHOENIX, ARIZONA AREA.

My immediate reaction was, “Wow, what an awful tragedy, and what a terrible year this is for American airplane safety.”

But once I saw the details behind that alert, and learned that fortunately it was only a crash between two small planes with only one fatality (instead of the hundreds I feared), I wanted to check my impression that we were having a bad year.

I found a site that tracks airplane crashes, and filtered their database for U.S.-only crashes.

In 2009, there have been 6 incidents so far. All told, 81 have died this year in plane crashes, and the year is not yet over. Everyone is probably familiar with the events in New York on January 15, 2009, where, thanks to the heroic landing in the Hudson by Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, 149 lives were saved following an engine strike by birds. Less than a month later, a horrible accident during bad weather on February 12, 2009, in New York claimed 49 lives. And a little more than a month after that, on March 22, 2009, another terrible accident in Montana killed 14. Then things were quiet until August 8, when a helicopter accident in New York led to 9 more fatalities.

Together, those four incidents created an impression in my mind that 2009 was a terrible year for air travel.

However, then I looked at the data for the previous four years.

In 2008, there were 15 accidents recorded in the U.S. The worst was on August 5, 2008, in California, and caused 9 fatalities. In total, 60 airplane accidents caused 60 fatalities last year.

For 2007, there were 11 accidents causing 46 fatalities, the worst being a crash in Washington state killing 10 in October.

In 2006, there were 9 accidents killing 65 air travelers, and the worst was a crash in Kentucky that killed 49 people in August.

2005 was a relatively safe year, with 7 accidents causing 37 deaths (20 from a crash in Florida in December).

Charted data (from planecrashinfo.com) for 2005-2009 showing U.S. airplane accidents: Number of incidents and number of fatalities.

Charted data (from planecrashinfo.com) for 2005-2009 showing U.S. airplane accidents: Number of incidents and number of fatalities. Click to enlarge.

(I shared the spreadsheet on Google docs if you want to see the raw data.)

So, while 2009 has seen some terrible and tragic accidents, it’s not really the case that it’s orders of magnitude worse than previous years. It’s true that there have been more fatalities this year (and there are still three months to go until 2010), but the number of accidents was actually higher in the previous three years.

Airplane travel remains much safer than car travel and other travel in terms of passenger miles. The III analysis of NCHS statistics for 2005 shows that your odds of dying in a car crash in a year are 1 in 6,539 while in a plane it’s 1 in 502,554 (compared to the odds of dying in a “cataclysmic storm” which are 1 in 339,253).

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