The flying odds are (but may not feel like they are) ever in your favor

James Fallows points out that the saga of Flight MH370 reinforces ideas about the dangers of flying, even though plane crashes are quite rare:

First-world commercial air travel has become so extremely safe that when something does go wrong, figuring it out can be a huge challenge — which heightens the mystery and, for many people, the terror of these episodes, by making them seem so random. You’re sitting there grumbling about the discomforts of modern flight — and then, for no apparent reason, your plane is the one headed into the sea…

I remember that when the 777 was introduced it was such a sales success and was expected to live such a long service life that some people speculated the fleet could actually make a billion flights. Of course, you don’t need to make a billion flights to draw the magic short one-in-a-billion straw. But it is something to think about. Transport flying is now so safe that the long time standard of 10 to the minus 9th may not satisfy the public.

The sobering point here is again that the very safety of modern air travel makes these episodes both intellectually and emotionally even more difficult.

Why does flying seem so threatening when driving is a much much more dangerous daily activity?

1. Passengers on an airplane have no or little control over their circumstances. Car drivers, in contrast, feel like they have a lot of control though is is part illusion: they can’t control the people around them or the conditions.

2. Plane crashes can involve dozens or hundreds of deaths. A larger death toll from a single event seems far worse than the amalgamation of lots of individual deaths. Think about the difference about the murder toll in Chicago on a yearly basis (spread throughout the calendar) versus the Newtown shootings (one event, worsened because the children couldn’t do anything about it).

3. The media grabs on to tragic events like this and keeps them in public view for weeks. In contrast, single deaths or smaller incidents get short mentions unless they involve unusual circumstances.

All together, the odds of dying in a plane crash are very small. That doesn’t mean those odds carry the same emotional and social weight.

Risk of flying in different countries

A new study suggests flying is more dangerous in the developing world compared to the Western, industrialized world:

Arnold Barnett, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and a researcher on aviation safety, calculated that the odds of dying on a scheduled flight in first world countries such as Canada and Japan are one in 14 million.

But he found that flying in emerging nations such as India and Brazil leads to a one in 2 million chance of death per flight. Lesser developed countries, such as many found in Africa and in Latin America, were found to have a crash rate of one in 800,000.

Overall, Barnett says the data suggests airplane safety around the world is improving. Still, these figures could be frightening to some.

Barnett argues this issues in developing countries might be brought on “individualism and deference to authority.” I recall reading something similar recently that said there were more crashes and issues in an Asian country (perhaps South Korea?) because subordinates (anyone on the plane lower than the pilot) felt they could not challenge the pilot’s authority and therefore would not bring up possible problems if they saw them.

But these figures still obscure the fact that flying in an airplane is relatively safer than a number of other, more frequent activities. Check out this graph from the National Safety Council to see the odds of other activities.