Missing Malaysia Airlines plane: Despite expected death toll we must remember air travel has never been safer

The total 239 presumed dead aboard the flight is barely more than the number killed on Chinese roads every day

Today, as every day, close to one million passengers will step aboard Boeing 777s at dozens of airports worldwide. Unlike other days, though, many of those travellers may note with a shiver that they are flying on the make of aircraft that was lost in the early hours of this morning.

No other form of transport, indeed no other sphere of life, enjoys aviation's extraordinary level of safety. The expected death toll aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing is 239, barely more than the daily carnage on the roads of China.

So why do aviation tragedies attain their high profile? Because of the haunting characteristic of multiple casualties occurring in uncertain circumstances. The media intrudes upon the profound grief of relatives whose lives are suddenly, violently emptier, their hopes and dreams extinguished. And the confused emotions of human empathy and heightened fear skew our perceptions of risk.

Boarding a Boeing 777 is about the most risk-averse activity you can hope to undertake. This twin-jet entered service in 1995, and has become one of the world’s safest and most successful aircraft.

The 777 is the long-haul mainstay of dozens of airlines - including British Airways, which operates more than 50 from Heathrow and Gatwick. One aircraft was written off at Heathrow in 2008, when both engines on BA38 from Beijing were starved of fuel and the plane came down short of the runway. Magnificent airmanship combined with the aircraft’s formidable strength ensured no lives were lost. Until this weekend, the only 777 fatal accident was last July, when an aircraft operated by the Korean airline, Asiana, crash-landed on arrival at San Francisco. Three passengers died.

Both these accidents occurred at the most dangerous phase of a flight, the approach and landing. In contrast, the loss of MH370 is extremely unusual: an aircraft vanishing from radar screens while in a normal cruise at 35,000 feet with no distress signals sent. The mystery helps to explain, if not excuse, the misleading social-media speculation. This morning, users of Twitter were assured variously that the plane had landed safely at Nanning airport in southern China, that it had run out of fuel, and that it had been downed by a missile.

Thankfully, the air-accident investigators will begin with open minds. A possible failure of both engines will be looked at, but in such circumstances the crew would be expected to have sufficient power and time to broadcast emergency messages.  The cargo manifest will be carefully studied for potential hazards – as will the passenger list. The possibility that the jet was deliberately downed, for example by a hijacker or a bomb, cannot be ruled out. But the cause of the tragedy may, once again, turn out to be a sequence of unlikely events that combined catastrophically.

Lessons will be learned, fixes will be implemented and risk will dwindle still further. Aviation safety is built upon tragedy.

Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Excellent opportunities are available for par...

    Investigo: IT Auditor

    £60000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: A global leading travel busi...

    Recruitment Genius: Chef De Partie x 2

    £16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This charming and contemporary ...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin