How safe is air travel in 2019?

With two high profile aviation disasters happening less than six months apart, and with both involving the trusted Boeing brand, it's understandable that some travellers are feeling nervous about flying.

It's time to put your mind at ease. Viewers of Air Crash Investigation will be familiar with how the each episode ends, by pointing out that every accident results in safer travel for everyone in the future.

One of the first generation Boeing 737-200's at Wellington Airport in 1980.
One of the first generation Boeing 737-200's at Wellington Airport in 1980. Photo credit: Phillip Capper.

Although it is possible that there may be a serious issue with the new Boeing 737-8 MAX, it's a very new aircraft, so your chances of even having to think about boarding one are very low. There are just 350 flying around the globe, that's less than one percent of aircraft in use today.

And, to answer the most common question I've heard today, no, Air New Zealand do not operate any aircraft of this type.

Historically the 737 has not only been the workhorse and backbone for so many airlines, it's also been the biggest seller for manufacturer Boeing with over 10,000 sold since the first one took off in 1967.

Statistics from the United States Government and website Aviation Safety Network show that incidents like these are becoming less common, and air remains one of the safest ways to travel.

Travel fatalities, especially involving aircraft are rare, so are often measured as 'deaths per billion journeys taken.' Here's how air travel compares to other means of transportation.

Death rates across different modes of travel:

  • Bus: One death per 4.3 billion journeys taken.
  • Rail: One death per 20 billion journeys taken.
  • Van: One death per 20 billion journeys taken. 
  • Car: One death per 40 billion journeys taken.
  • Foot: One death per 40 billion journeys taken.
  • Water: One death per 90 billion journeys taken.
  • Air: One death per 117 billion journeys taken.
  • Bicycle: One death per 170 billion journeys taken. 
  • Motorcycle: One death per 1640 billion journeys taken.
  • Skydiving: One death per 7500 billion journeys taken.

Meanwhile, data from the United States Statistics Department shows you are 80 times more likely to die by choking on food and 95 times more likely to be killed by gunfire than dying in a plane crash.

What are the odds? 

  • Heart disease: One in six.
  • Cancer: One in seven.
  • Car accident: One in 103
  • Falling over: One in 114
  • Gun Assault: One in 285
  • Being hit as a Pedestrian: One in 556
  • Motorcycle crash: One in 858
  • Drowning: One in 1,117
  • Fire or Smoke: One in 1,474
  • Choking on Food: One in 2,696
  • Bicycle crash: One in 4,047
  • Accidental Gun Discharge: One in 8,527
  • Electrocution, Radiation, Extreme Temperatures and Pressure: One in 15,638
  • Sharp objects: One in 28,000
  • Cataclysmic Storm: One in 31,394
  • Hornet, wasp and bee stings: One in 46,562
  • Dog attack: One in 115,111
  • Passenger on an airplane: One in 188,364
  • Lightning: One in 218,106
  • Railway passenger: One in 243,765

Year on year:

Despite a spike in airplane fatalities in 2018 to 561, the number of deaths caused by plane crashes has been trending down as technology improves and makes aircraft safer.

An animated recreation of the worst aviation disaster in history.
An animated recreation of the worst aviation disaster in history. Photo credit: Smithsonian Channel.

Comparing the fatality figures from the 1970s until now, the difference is huge.

In 1972 there were 2385 deaths, and 2031 in 1973.

Fast-forward to 2017 where just 59 people were killed, 232 in 2013, 186 in 2015 and 258 in 2016.

To date, the worst single aviation disaster took place at Tenerife in 1977 when two fully loaded 747s collided on the runway at Los Rodeos Airport, killing 583 people.