The Truth About Plane Crashes
Everyone knows that flying is the safest way to travel — but that doesn’t stop many from breaking out into a cold sweat at the very thought of boarding a plane.
Admittedly, last year saw the biggest spike in the number of fatal plane crashes internationally in a long time. But despite the sharp rise, many more people around the world each year are killed in road traffic accidents than in plane crashes. Indeed, the chances of dying in a car crash are 1 in 5,000, versus 1 in 11 million for perishing on a plane.
Here, we provide the 411 on plane crashes, including info on why flying is so safe, what still can (and does) go wrong, and the fear of flying itself.
6.5% of the U.S. population has a phobia of flying
Afraid to fly? You’re not alone.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 6.5 percent of Americans have “aviophobia” (or, as it’s also known, “aerophobia”), a percentage that equates to more than 20 million Americans. Factor in people who don’t have a full-blown phobia, but experience some amount of anxiety related to flying, and the share shoots up to 25 percent — or more than 90 million Americans.
Primary concerns include not only a fear of crashing, but a fear of being out of control, fear of heights and claustrophobia. Anxiety may also be linked to triggers such as crowds, airport procedures and turbulence. As for symptoms, they’re no joke; sweating, heart palpitations, nausea, shaking and dizziness are common.
The good news: If you suffer from aviophobia, you don’t necessarily have to resign yourself to a life of grueling trips on the Amtrak train. Generally effective treatments include cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, anti-anxiety medication or some combination of these.
Even A-listers can be aviophobic — Jennifer Aniston counts herself among them.
Even those accustomed to flying in the lap of luxury aren’t immune from aviophobia. In fact, many rich and famous people have admitted they’re terrified of taking to the skies.
This list includes Jennifer Aniston, who revealed she’s been scared of flying since she was caught in a particularly turbulent flight through an electrical storm while traveling from Toronto to New York.
Other famous personalities who’ve admitted to flying-related anxiety include Whoopi Goldberg. Actor Sam Shepard admitted to being afraid despite playing a test pilot involved in aeronautical research in the 1983 movie, “The Right Stuff”.
According to “New York Magazine,” filmmaker Wes Anderson is so spooked by flying that he traveled from the USA to Europe by boat to promote “The Darjeeling Limited.” As interviewer David Amsden put it, “He far prefers trains and automobiles to anything airborne.”
Celebrities — they’re just like us!
You'd have to fly every day for 241 years before being in an accident in which one passenger dies.
The somewhat ominous-sounding “Fatality Risk” is a safety metric used by the trade association for the world’s airlines, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), to measure the likelihood of being involved in a “catastrophic accident” while flying.
In 2018, the Fatality Risk was 0.17. This means that on average, a person would have to travel by air every day for 241 years before experiencing an accident in which at least one passenger was killed.
To be on a flight in which everyone was killed, a person would have to travel, on average, every day for 16,581 years — aka until the year 18600.
So while aviophobia is common, it’s not all that justified.
Since 1948, 85 aircraft have gone missing.
According to the Aviation Safety Network, there have been 85 cases of a passenger, cargo or military-transport airplane disappearing "without a trace" since 1948. As ASN puts it, rather ominously, "In these cases not a single piece of wreckage, oil slick or body has been found."
The most likely scenario is, of course, that these aircraft crashed somewhere remote, never to be recovered. But isn't it more interesting to think there might be conspiracies at play?
The worst air crash in history was at Tenerife airport in the Canary Islands.
The air accident with the highest number of fatalities to date occurred in 1977, when a KLM Boeing 747 collided on the runway with a Pan Am 747 at the Los Rodeos Airport in the Canary Islands.
Due to a miscommunication, the KLM pilot attempted to take off without permission from air-traffic control in thick fog; no one on board saw the Pan Am aircraft on the runway until it was too late.
In total, 583 people died — virtually all of the passengers on the KLM plane, plus all but 61 on the Pam Am aircraft.
The tragic incident has had a lasting influence on the industry. There’s now an increased emphasis on communication, including the use of standardized phraseology between pilots and air-traffic controllers. Also, the captain is no longer considered infallible — input from the crew is now encouraged.
The world’s most dangerous airport is in Nepal.
Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, Nepal has been named the most dangerous airport on Earth — and for very good reason.
For one thing, the airport is situated at an altitude of nearly 9,500 feet. It also has a tiny (1,640-foot) runway that teeters on the edge of a mountainside. The drop from said runway is 1.8 miles, and at the other end is a solid stone wall and a cliff.
Because of the location, pilots have to navigate snow-capped peaks and erratic weather, and most of the aircraft is small and therefore more prone to accidents.
Moreover, there’s no radar system, meaning pilots and air-traffic controllers have to rely solely on voice communications. The pilot lets the controllers know when the plane is approaching, and the controllers give pilots updates on wind and traffic — and urge helicopters to steer clear.
The airport was established by the first man to climb Mount Everest, New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary, in an effort to curb the travel time for trekkers going from Kathmandu to Everest. Local farmers reportedly wouldn’t sell their land to Hillary, so instead he bought a steep slope for $635 and opened this frightening airport on it in 1964.
To date, there have been three fatal crashes at the airport. Considering the hazards, this honestly seems low.
Gibraltar International Airport has a busy road running through it.
The British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar is only 2.6 square miles in size, so it should come as no surprise that its Gibraltar International Airport is compact too. The airport is, in fact, squeezed between the city, harbor and massive 1,400-foot-high Rock of Gibraltar, leaving little in the way of elbow room.
Due to this lack of space, a dual-lane road cuts into the runway of the airport. It’s one of the territory’s busiest thoroughfares, and it has to be shut down every single time a plane takes off or lands.
In addition to this hindrance, the 5,500-foot runway abruptly ends at the sea at both ends, meaning pilots have to hit the breaks as soon as they touch down.
Hence, while Nepal’s airport is generally considered the most dangerous, this one has been singled out for being particularly precarious as well.
Despite the apparent hazards and a number of incidents, there has only been one recorded fatal crash here. Still, this is probably not an airport we’d choose to book a trip to...
Greed played a role in those two recent, high-profile Boeing crashes.
All commercial planes need to meet very strict safety standards laid out by a government safety regulator (such as the FAA for U.S.-made aircraft, or EASA for EU-made aircraft), and generally speaking, each new generation of aircraft is safer than the previous one.
An IATA spokesperson told Far & Wide: “If we look back through history, each new generation of aircraft brings an increased level of safety, but aviation already is extremely safe.”
So why, with all these measures in place, did two Boeing 737 Max planes recently crash in Ethiopia and Indonesia, killing a total of 346 passengers? In part, greed played a role.
According to investigators, the planes lacked two key safety features that, if installed, may have prevented the tragedies. And those features weren’t part of the planes because Boeing charges airlines a premium to include them. As an aviation consultant told "The New York Times": “Boeing charges for [these features] because it can. But they’re vital for safety.”
Thankfully, swift action was taken around the world to ground this model of Boeing pending further investigation. At the time of publication, the model was still not being used by most countries, including the United States, Canada, the UK, Australia and Malaysia.
Meanwhile, Boeing is now making one of the safety features standard on its planes.
The most common type of plane accident is known as a “Runway Excursion."
While excursions are usually fun, a “runway excursion” is decidedly not fun. This type of accident, which involves an aircraft veering off or overrunning the runway surface during takeoff or landing, is also alarmingly common, accounting for a quarter of all incidents and accidents in air transport.
So how do these accidents happen?
Sometimes, a plane fails to become airborne before it reaches the end of the runway. Other times, the aircraft lands, but is unable to stop before it reaches the end of the runway. A runway excursion can also happen during a landing if the touchdown speed is too excessive, or if there’s a malfunction with the plane’s breaks or spoilers.
This all sounds rather terrifying, but don’t fret too much: “Survivability of such accidents is high,” according to the IATA.
The deadliest type of crash is known as “Loss of Control In-flight.”
While runway excursions are the most common type of accident, they’re not the most deadly. That dubious distinction belongs instead to a category of catastrophe known as “Loss of Control In-flight” (or as those in the aviation industry say, “LOC-I.”)
A crash caused by LOC-I occurs when the pilot is unable to regain control of an aircraft and deviates from the intended flight path while airborne. Sometimes this is caused by a system or component failure, or a malfunction such as engine failure. Environmental factors, including meteorological phenomena, can also be the culprit.
The encouraging news? Between 2013 and 2017, only 22 accidents were caused by a loss of control in-flight. The scary news? These accidents accounted for 949 fatalities.
There are reasons for all those weird airplane rules.
Yes, there are a lot of weird rules on planes. But for the most part, they're there for good reason.
Seats must be in a full and upright position during takeoff and landing because reclined seats can slow people down during emergency evacuations, when every second counts. (The FAA says people should be able to exit in just 90 seconds.) The same goes for securing tray tables.
Luggage, meanwhile, must be stored fully under the seats because, in the case of a crash, bags can become dangerous projectiles.
One rule that doesn't hold quite as much water is the one disallowing the use of electronic devices to call or text during takeoffs and landings. The idea is that cell signals can disrupt a plane's navigation systems, but there is actually scant evidence to back this up. Still, most airlines and the FAA continue to enforce the rule. And annoying as it is, it's best to abide.
A Canadian engineer is credited with saving more lives than any other individual in the history of aviation.
You probably haven’t heard of Don Bateman, but anyone who’s ever flown owes a debt of gratitude to him.
It’s Bateman who developed two of the most important safety technologies in aircraft today: the Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS) and the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS). Collectively, these have reduced accidents classified as “controlled flight into terrain” to an extraordinary extent, from one in every three million flights during the 1970s to less than one in every 20 million flights today.
The Canadian-born engineer also developed nearly 50 U.S. patents and 250 international patents. In 2003, he was presented with the Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2011, President Barack Obama presented him with the U.S. Presidential Medal of Technology and Innovation.
Bateman retired after 57 years in the business in 2016. Not all heroes wear capes.
The real-life story of a hero pilot who saved the lives of 155 passengers was turned into a box-office smash.
Speaking of heroes: The Tom Hanks movie “Sully” tells the story of the man behind the famous “miracle on the Hudson."
After a bird strike disabled both engines of an Airbus A320 in 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was unable to reach the airport safely, so he decided to land on New York’s Hudson river instead. With the engines incapacitated, he glided the plane into a water landing. Miraculously, none of the 155 passengers on board were even seriously injured.
The 2016 movie based on the event, directed by Clint Eastwood, grossed $240.8 million worldwide at the box office.
The world’s biggest seaplane hub has never had any fatalities.
The Maldives, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, is considered the world’s seaplane hub. Mostly, this is for practical reasons — the country’s territory is 99 percent water, and its 1,200 islands are spread over 3,4749 square miles. The fastest way for guests to travel between the nation’s 120 hotels, spread across its many islands, is to hitch a ride on a seaplane.
Seaplane companies operating in the Maldives favor the 16-seater DHC-6 De Havilland Twin Otter, a small aircraft built in Canada that touts a remarkably good track record. Since seaplane operation began in the Maldives in 1989, the nation has not had a single fatal seaplane crash. Maybe it’s time to book a trip to this tropical island paradise?
A huge team of experts is constantly working to improve safety, behind the scenes.
It’s not that sexy-sounding and rarely makes the front pages, but a large number of aviation staff and watchdogs are working tirelessly to improve safety standards — and to ensure everybody sticks to them.
One of the most significant advances in passenger safety came about when the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) launched the Universal Safety Oversight Audit Program in 1999. It ensures that all its members are aligned with ICAO’s standards and best practices for safety regulation and oversight.
IATA also developed the IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA). In 2018, the accident rate for airlines on the IOSA registry was more than two times lower than that of non-IOSA airlines (0.98 vs. 2.16). And this rate was more than two-and-a-half times better in 2018 than it was in 2014.