How safe is air travel? Last year, when large commercial jets took off 21.6 million times throughout the world, there was just one fatal accident.
Boeing’s comprehensive annual compilation of data about air accidents involving large Western-built jet airliners, released Tuesday, shows a decadeslong trend toward safer air travel.
At the beginning of the jet age, in 1959, there were 40 fatal accidents per million flights. The rate accident fell rapidly and a decade ago was down to less than one fatal accident per million flights. Last year, it was less than 0.05 fatal accidents per million flights.
In airlines operated by North American airlines, last year the fatal accident rate was zero.
Past tragedies brought enhanced safety
One cannot minimize the awful tragedy of a jet airliner crash. The two deadly crashes of Boeing 737 MAXs in 2018 and 2019 still lie heavy on the minds of many in the aviation world and among air travelers.
Yet those accidents were exceptional.
Fatal airliner crashes, common as recently as the 1960s, have been rare since the late 1990s. Measured by fatalities per total number of people carried, air travel is the safest form of mass transportation.
The plunge in the aviation accident rates over decades is due to enormous technical and organizational advances: safer technology systems on planes, more efficient air traffic control, and thorough training of pilots and maintenance mechanics.
Intensely detailed investigations into fatal accidents by the US National Transportation Safety Board and its counterparts in other countries have produced significant safety improvements over the decades — and the recent MAX crashes have done so once again.
Jim Hall, who was NTSB chair in the 1990s and oversaw investigations into the deadly 737 crashes in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Pittsburgh, recalls how those accidents resulted not only in Boeing fixing the rudder system implicated in the crashes but in pilots being trained in upset recovery maneuvers.
Other accidents in that period led to changes in the way flight crews communicate with one another to ensure efficient teamwork in an emergency.
Eventually airlines developed management protocols to systematically address safety risks at every level from the flight deck to the maintenance hangar to the pilot training schools and their mission control centers.
After the MAX crashes, Boeing also committed to a formal Safety Management System throughout its enterprise.
“Boeing is saying the right things,” Hall said. “Hopefully they are doing the right things.”
He said the decline in regulatory oversight in the years before the MAX crashes — when Congress insisted on the Federal Aviation Administration delegating more and more of the risk assessments on new aircraft to Boeing itself — has been arrested by the MAX tragedies.
“We lost our eye on aviation safety when Congress was deluded into the changes that brought the MAX crashes,” Hall said. “Anyone in aviation safety should have been embarrassed by the information that came out after those accidents.”
Now, though, the Aviation subcommittees in Congress “have been all over the FAA to do its job,” he said.
“Hopefully we’ll now see a continued trend of safer aviation,” Hall concluded.
Rare and unusual
Boeing’s data does not include accidents involving small private planes, small seaplanes, business jets or turboprop planes — such as those flown by Alaska Airlines subsidiary Horizon Air. Commercial jets manufactured in Russia and China are also excluded due to lack of operational data.
The data set comprises flights by large jet airliners built largely by Bombardier, Embraer, Airbus and Boeing, and includes both passenger and cargo planes. In 2021, there were just over 28,500 such airplanes operating worldwide, of which just shy of 13,500 were Boeing jets.
Globally, the only fatal airliner crash among them was the crash of a Boeing 737 “classic” airplane operated by Sriwijaya Air in Indonesia, in which 62 people died.
That plane may have suffered an autothrottle malfunction. The final investigation report is expected imminently and may well lead to some corrective action by Boeing.
The recent safety record of American and Canadian airlines is remarkable.
In 2018, on a Southwest Airlines flight, metal shrapnel from an uncontained engine failure blew out a cabin window, killing one passenger. That was the only death in an accident on a passenger airliner operated by North American airlines in the past decade.
There were a dozen deaths during the decade in crashes of cargo planes operated by American carriers. These included the 2013 crash of a 747 cargo jet operated by commercial freight charter carrier National Air Cargo that crashed carrying military supplies in Afghanistan, killing seven people.
Overseas, the record is more blemished, with nearly 1,600 deaths from 27 scheduled passenger jet accidents in the past decade. That includes the 346 deaths from the MAX crashes, which were exceptional in that the two aircraft were almost new and took off in perfect flying weather.
Most of the other overseas accidents in the past decade involved much older aircraft, often at small airlines with dubious safety records.
The 1,600 global fatality total over 10 years includes the 239 people aboard the Malaysia Airlines 777 that disappeared in 2014 over the Indian Ocean — thought by many in the aviation world to be a pilot suicide.
However, Boeing’s data set excludes the 289 people who died later that same year when Russian-backed forces shot down another Malaysia Airlines 777 flying over Ukraine. That was a deliberate military act, not an aviation accident.
Similarly, it doesn’t include the 176 people killed on a Ukraine International Airlines 737 that Iranian forces shot down as it took off from Tehran in January 2020. At a moment of heightened military tension with the US, the Iranians mistook the jet for an incoming cruise missile.
So far this year, there has been a single large jet transport fatal accident: In March, a China Eastern 737-800, the model before the MAX, crashed in the mountains of the Guangxi region, killing all 132 people aboard.
The investigation of that accident has not been published, but The Wall Street Journal reported in May the preliminary conclusion of American investigators that this may have been a deliberate suicidal dive into the ground by one of the pilots.
In the current unstable world, airliners are essentially so safe, especially in North America and Europe, that the risk of some malign action to bring down a plane may be greater than the risk of a fatal accident.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story missed the type of plane that crashed in March in the Guangxi region of China. It was a China Eastern 737-800.