How safe is flying?

Even though stories of survival and horrific deaths caused by airplane crashes stick in people's minds, statistics show airliners remain one of the safer modes of transportation.
A rescue worker looks through an airplane window in search of a plane that crashed near Los Roques islands in the Caribbean Sea, north of Caracas, on Jan. 6, 2008. ((Howard Yanes/Associated Press))

A plane nosediving into the depths of the ocean, another plunging into a house killing those aboard and one on the ground, a flock of geese disabling a massive airliner's engines.

The startling stories of survival and horrific deaths caused by airplane crashes stick in people's minds thanks to the sheer scale.

But even as crash stories dominate headlines, statistics remind us that airliners are one of the safer modes of transportation.

Passenger fatalities on scheduled flights of aircraft with takeoff mass of over 2,250 kg
 Year No. of accidents  People killed  Fatalities per 100 million km
 1998  19  856  0.03
 1999  20  300  0.01
 2000  18  757  0.03
 2001  13  579  0.02
 2002  11  667  0.02
 2003  7  466  0.02
 2004  9  207  0.01
 2005  17  712  0.02
 2006  12  751  0.02
 2007  11  587 0.01
 (Source: International Civil Aviation Organization 's Annual Report 2007)

In fact, passengers boarding a plane have a 99.99 per cent chance of surviving the flight.

The International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, found that in 2007 there were only 0.014 deaths for every 100 million passenger kilometres, and that's despite a rise in air traffic compared to the previous year.

"So in reality, that's the best, sort of the safest that you get in all sectors of transportation but that doesn't always comfort people because I think people naturally have a fear of flying," said Suzanne Kearns, an aviation safety professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.

Transport Canada says on its website that aircraft safety has continuously improved since the Second World War and accidents now stand at an all-time low thanks largely to technology improvements like reliable engines and navigation systems.

It notes there are few technological solutions for many of today's accidents, many of which are caused by human error rather than more easy to solve issues like mechanical failures and sabotage.

From 75 to 98 per cent of plane accidents can be attributed to human error, depending on the aviation sector, says Kearns. Smaller, non-commercial aircraft see the higher end of the spectrum.

"It's a lot easier when an accident happens as a result of a mechanical problem to identify that and then fix all the airplanes but when you identify that it's a human problem it's much more challenging to fix all the pilots," said Kearns.

"You can't just tighten a screw and then everybody's better."

Heading off plane crashes

Airlines around the world are currently in the process of undergoing a key change in the way they deal with accidents.

Instead of the reactive approach taken in the past where the airlines fix problems after an accident, the industry is now trying to anticipate them.

At the heart of that change is the use of so-called safety management systems, or SMS — basically, a systematic approach to evaluating risk factors within a company before it causes an accident.

"It views accidents as being the result of the organization.... So it's not necessarily just the pilot's fault or just the airplane's fault but it goes all the way up to management practices," says Kearns. 

Canada, she notes, was one of the first countries to develop SMS, which will become an international requirement in 2010.

Though Canada is home to the second largest aircraft fleet in the world due to many smaller aircraft, it lacks the encumbering bureaucracy of larger countries, allowing it to quickly pass regulations such as SMS, says Kearns.

On the horizon

Canada is also at the forefront of another change expected to sweep the aviation horizon.

Almost since the Wright brothers first flew their plane in 1903, pilot training has remained virtually motionless, with education ruled by the idea of completing a regulated number of training and flight hours.

"We train them: Can you do this certain manoeuvre? And have you completed X number of hours of ground training in a classroom? Well, then, great, you're done," said Kearns.

But that's about to change. Schools are now starting to focus on testing a level of performance, rather than hours spent training.

"You can sit in a classroom but if you're not paying attention you're not getting anything out of it," Kearns points out.

Recent plane crash survivors:

June 2009: Yemenia plane crash into Indian Ocean

Bahia Bakari, 14, clung onto debris for over 13 hours before she was rescued following the crash of an Airbus 310 jet. She was the only one of 153 passengers to survive. 

January 2009: Hudson aircraft crash

All 155 passengers managed to escape after an Airbus 320 hit a flock of Canadian geese shortly after takeoff, disabling both engines and forcing the pilot to land in the Hudson River.

December 2008: Crash off southern Baffin Island

Both passengers — Oliver Edwards-Neil and Troels Hansen — lived to tell the tale of how they escaped their Cessna before it sank, then spent 12 hours on an ice floe before a fishing vessel spotted them.

November 2008: South Thormanby Island plane crash

The sole survivor among eight passengers had dozed off before a Grumman Goose amphibious airplane crashed.

August 2008: Vancouver Island plane crash

Two of seven passengers survived the crash of a Grumman Goose amphibious aircraft en route to a remote logging site. Text messages helped rescuers find the survivors.

September 2007: Thai plane crash

Canadian Mildred Anne Furlong was one of 39 survivors aboard a One-Two-Go plane with 130 passengers. Furlong escaped through a window with minor injuries.

Blacklisting countries, airlines

Safety concerns about certain airlines not meeting international safety standards prompted the European Union to create its own blacklist of airlines not allowed in the region's air space back in 2006. Dominating the list are many African and Asian airliners.

When a Yemenia Airways jet crashed near the Comoros Islands in June 2009, killing all but one of the 153 passengers aboard, the EU pushed for the world to adopt a global blacklist of banned airlines. Yemenia Airways was criticized for swapping more modern planes for older ones for the final leg of its flights.

No such public list for airlines is in place in North American, though the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration does list countries that don't comply with international standards.

The FAA looked into ranking airlines, but concluded it was impossible to do so with such wide differences in carrier safety records at any given time, mostly because of the random catastrophes that befall them.

"There is no evidence that such distinctions persist nor that they are predictive of future safety performance," the FAA said.

For Kearns, one of the troubling issues that arise when deadly plane crashes make news is the "vicious cycle" it causes, where the airline industry — known for its slim margin lines — loses revenue as people avoid air travel, thus resulting in fewer dollars to spend on airline safety.

"Any time people start to get a little nervous then the industry tends to lose a lot of money and the reality is when they have less money, they have less money to invest in safety programs," said Kearns.

Though Kearns has been flying since the age of 15, she admits to having a bit of fear when airborne since she began teaching airplane safety courses. But she cautions that the chance of a plane crash are small.

"People shouldn't be afraid of flying. The aviation industry is always continually looking for new ways to be safe. And they're really on the forefront of safety research."