The fear of flying is rational, but is all the attention given to airline safety rational?

The fear of flying is rational, but is all the attention given to airline safety rational?

I understand why there are people who might be afraid to fly. I would be a liar if I said that I have never felt un-easy during a turbulent flight or rough landing. But with all the attention always given to airline safety, one would think planes are falling out of the sky constantly. As most of you probably know, flying is extremely safe. So why is so much attention always given when something remotely related to airline safety makes headlines?

Are there that many deaths in the US each year from airlines to cause such attention? Hmm. Not really (see data below), especially when compared to other deaths. So why do airlines get so much coverage and regulation, when other, more easily preventable deaths do not?

Please note that this post is by no means to trivialize anyone who dies from any of these causes in the US each year, but it is to compare how much attention is given to different kind of deaths each year in the US.

Here are statistics for the number of deaths in the US each year for 2009:
All Deaths: 2,436,682
Heart Disease: 598,607
Alzheimer’s: 78,889
Diabetes: 68,705
All Transportation related deaths: 39,057
Auto accident deaths: 36,284
Deaths from falls: 24,834
Homicide: 16,591
Accidental drowning: 3,539
Hernias: 1,821
Tornado: 550
US Troops in Iraq: 149
Lightning: 34
Dog Attack: 32
Malaria: 5

Now, let’s take a look at airline related deaths in the US:

Airline deaths 2009: 45
Airline deaths 2010: 0
Airline deaths 2011: 0
Airline deaths 1982 to present: 2924

For me, that is amazing. More people died from accidental drowning in 2009 alone versus all the people who have died from airlines in the US since 1982. Now, the big question: why is so much attention given to airline related deaths? What are your thoughts?

Image: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER - SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me: david@airlinereporter.com

President Obama Makes a Visit to the Boeing Factory at Paine Field
Doug Pellom

Everyone fears the idea of being completely out of control of their present situation, and we all have a primal fear falling.

I think people have a false sense of control, when they really do not. When driving down a two-lane highway at 60mph, you really have little control if a car crosses the center line last minute.


When it comes to feeling safe, or should I say the public perception of safety, it’s the feeling that matters, not the actual numbers. Even though the sense of control people have in a car is false, it is still there and is a big reason why people feel that cars are safer, even when the numbers tell us they aren’t.
If you feel in control (even if that feeling is false) it’s easy to delude yourself into thinking ‘that would never happen to *me* because I’m a good driver’ and thus feel safe.

In the end the question boils down to what does it mean for something to be safe. The usual definition is ‘has an acceptable risk’ (since everything in life comes with risk). The numbers can tell us what the risk is, but they’re pretty poor at telling us what is considered acceptable. Then add in gut feelings, which often don’t go away no matter how many statistics you throw at the matter, and the fact that people generally aren’t very good at coping with statistics and probability and the picture becomes very muddy.

You should try looking up how many people have died as a result of nuclear accidents in the US (or the world for that matter) since 1982 and then contrast that with the public perception of the safety of nuclear power.

As for why aviation accidents receive so much attention vs say drowning: aircraft accidents are large events involving tens or hundreds of people and producing nice dramatic images of burning wreckage. A typical drowning involves only 1 person, and unless you arrive before the ambulance the only pictures you can get is of some completely unremarkable lake or river. It’s all a matter of what provides better TV / newspaper front page.

My wife needs to see these stats, given her irrational fear of flying.

I understand the fear of being out of control and falling, but why aren’t we as terrified of going in cars, or crossing the road, when another driver could hit us any second?

These stats are a good reminder of how safe flight is.


The problem with truly irrational fears is that stats don’t help. That’s why they’re irrational fears and not rational fears.
I went climbing once and I know perfectly well that you can hang a truck from the rope and climbing harness without it breaking. That knowledge did absolutely nothing to reduce my fear of letting go of the wall and leaning back with only the rope to support me when it was time to abseil back down.

In cars we have a far greater illusion of being in control, even though we could be hit by other people.

I think we’re not *that* scared of flying or there wouldn’t be so much airline traffic, but the media certainly seem to enjoy blowing every tiny incident out of proportion. Presumably because if they simply printed: “plane had minor problem, landed without incident, ‘no big deal really’ said passenger” they wouldn’t sell any newspapers / get ratings.

Big media is mostly to blame.

Pictures of flaming wreckage, with screamign headlines of 32 people dead, is the lead story for days, even if it happened halfway around the world.

If a plane has problems, circles the field for an hour or so, and the media gathers, even if nothing happens, the pinhead journalist immediately look for the “I was sure i was going to die” quote to lead with — even if the problem was somethign simple, like problems with the radios that necessitated a return to base for the aircraft.

When I was an active journalist in the mainstream media, the saying “if it bleeds it leads” had a tremendous amount of truth to it. That was a long time ago, but it is still true today — and might even be worse. Heaven help us if the plane had a television or movie celebrity on board, then whatever that bubblebrain says is takes as absolute gospel truth.

Don’t get me started…….

Jeffrey Sooter

The most dangerous part of flying, is the drive to and from the airport.

Good point Jeff on the risks involved.

Very good article. I think people give their irrational fears of the risk of death by flying too much attention is based on the fact that airplane crashes are often horrific compared to dying in ones sleep or other natural causes and also how the media hypes them up. I read a good book on airline disasters and the number of fatalities increased in the 70’s and 80’s from air disasters because of the drastic increase in the number of passengers carried. Think about it. If two single engine prop planes had collided in Tenerife the incident would have been all but forgotten. But put two 747’s on the runways and you’ve got the worst air disaster of all time. I blame the media and us sorry common folk who seek out the sensational.

One thing I will add is that as a result of air disasters, the FAA and aircraft manufacturers have implemented a lot of safety measures and procedures that have prevented many future tragedies.

I still can’t believe 1800 people died of a hernia last year. I’m packing light next time I fly! šŸ™‚

You can die from a hernia? Good lord…

I know. Honestly, that was probably the fact that shocked me the most.


Also more dangerous than flying: walking. Basically anything you can think of doing is more dangerous than flying.

How about General Avaiation related deaths in 2009 and following years?

Statistically speaking, flying on a U.S. airline in 2012 is just about the safest form of transportation in the history of mankind.

Safer than driving, riding a train, a ship, a hot air balloon. Safer than walking.

Try landing at Wellington Airport in New Zealand in a A-320-200, it is incredibly bumpy and scary. When I was flying from Auckland to Wellington About an hour each way half way there we lost 6000 feet of altitude from 30 seconds of turbulence and I was drinking a cup of water when it happened…

And that is why you wear a seatbelt unless you are going to the lav (and when not at cruise it isn’t a bad idea to have your hand up on the ceiling). That’ll kill you less than a heartbeat (depending on how fast your heart is beating, at rest that should hold true though).

Jonathon Nield

Its a combination of many of the things being said. Media sensationalism, high profile crashes, history, and the rarity of such events all contributes to this perception the public has of air travel being scary and dangerous.

How many people are killed in the US bij guns??? and crime

Because it rarely happens. And when it does, people don’t expect it. The flying public actually has high confidence in the airline industry, as shown by the number of people who fly.

So perception does match statistics.

It’s the media which blows it out of perspective..

The hours spent annually in an auto versus hours spent in an aircraft equate pretty fairly to the death rate in either? Has anyone ever tried to compare those percentages? Just sayin.

I think this might be what you were searching for…:


I think most of the major reasons have already been mentioned in terms of people’s fears, how violent the accidents generally are, etc. One of the other differences is that flying is the most unnatural thing that we as humans do. Dying in every other way has essentially been around forever, but flying is only 100 years old. True, cars have not been around that long, but you had wagons, trains, and other ground based transportation where people died.

I also think the fact that airline deaths are so rare makes them far more newsworthy. The instant nature of news is what makes all of the close calls get so much press. If something terrible were to happen everyone wants to be the one who broke the story first.

I don’t think safety has a negative effect on the industry as a whole since the people who won’t fly, won’t fly no matter how safe it is. There may be a small impact, but I would guess that it is negligible.


If there were as many planes as there are motor vehicles it would rain people, and bits of aircraft!

Horrific way to die? I think not… Car crash = horrific way to die. Commercial plane crash = quick and painless. I think people need to take a walk down a street in Delhi and get a sense of what read danger in traveling is.

kaarthy madhan

Airlines cutting costs and being economical in every possible way and with the media underlining the Pilots who are being underpaid and overworked and the stress levels they face may give a false idea to the people who fear flying, for them its one more reason to add to their list of no taking to the sky and drive instead since they feel in control of the situation. The facts can be astonishing and hard to digest for the folks who understand the fail safe mechanisms of a plane and the way it is designed but the rest would just not accept the fact since they are more convinced that they will face one such event some time soon. May be the media should also bring out documentaries of how much regulation is in place for the commercial airline industry and what penalty an airline would face if the procedure is not being followed.

Airlines are here to make money and even their worst nightmare is to show up in a news for any malfunctioning of their machines.

Airline deaths attract attention because a lot of people die all at once. The “all at once” is the key to it. Like school shootings & the bird ‘flu.


Some deaths are more acceptable then others to our minds. You are not in control of a plane, we are not made to fly but we need to do it in our days, and if something happens all the simulations that you do iin your mind about how it should be are terrifying.. For me that’s why we give a lot of attention,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *