For nervous flyers wondering why so many people died in plane crashes in 2018, these are the real reasons

The tragedy near Havana airport in which 112 people died involved a jet leased from a small Mexican firm – and had I seen the jet from the departure lounge of Jose Marti Airport I might have had second thoughts about stepping aboard

Simon Calder@SimonCalder
Wednesday 02 January 2019 17:07
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Simon Calder reviews air travel in 2018

Many travellers, I find, are lousy at risk assessment. Judging from the questions (and heckles) that reach me on social media, they will worry deeply about the dangers of terrorism in Egypt or Tunisia, but not fret about the atrocious road safety record in each country (three times as bad as the UK in Egypt, seven times worse in Tunisia).

The Ebola virus is a vile scourge for some communities in west and central Africa, but poses almost zero risk for everyone else. Yet tourists cancelled trips to Kenya and South Africa to avoid being in the same continent as the few unfortunate carriers of the disease.

And even my close family and friends pay hundreds of pounds extra to avoid airlines they regard as “dangerous”.

The fatality figures for 2018 may intensify that miscalculation.

According to figures provided to me by the Dutch aviation safety consultancy To70, 534 passengers died in commercial aircraft accidents last year.

If you wish to fuel your fear of flying, you could deduce that aviation became 41 times more dangerous in 2018 than in the year before – in which 13 people sadly died in plane crashes.

But that would be to draw entirely the wrong conclusion.

Traveler discovers she is the only passenger on her flight

For a headline, try this instead: “Another incredibly safe year for airline passengers.”

That is not to diminish the tragedy of those 534 lost lives. But please place that number in the context of the 4.34 billion individual journeys that the International Air Transport Association says were undertaken in 2018, giving odds of better than eight million to one.

Not all airlines are equally safe. The UK and Ireland are, happily, at the extreme end of air safety: easyJet, Flybe, Jet2, Ryanair, Thomas Cook Airlines and Virgin Atlantic have never experienced a fatal accident, and Aer Lingus and British Airways have had outstanding safety records for decades.

I would not for a moment shun other carriers, because accidents are thankfully so rare that it is difficult to draw meaningful conclusions. But for nervous passengers anxious to learn something from the statistics, let me drill into the crashes last year with the highest death tolls.

The Lion Air crash in which 189 died happened in Indonesia, a country whose safety oversight has been a source of concern for Western governments.

Next, Cuba has had a poor safety record over the decades – partly attributed to the US economic embargo. But the domestic flight tragedy near Havana airport in which 112 people died involved a jet leased from a small Mexican firm. The plane was a 39-year-old Boeing 737. While aircraft age is no reliable indicator of danger, had I seen the jet from the departure lounge of Jose Marti Airport I might have had second thoughts about stepping aboard.

Old age and poor maintenance are not unknown in Iran, again with American sanctions sometimes blamed. So a domestic flight on an elderly prop-jet is, in global terms, high risk – as it proved when 66 people lost their lives in the Zagros Mountains.

Kathmandu Airport has seen many more than its fair share of accidents, and I would fly in and out of the Nepali capital only on an established international carrier, rather than a small Bangladeshi airline.

What did all these calamities have in common? The characteristic that looks clearest to me is: they did not involve the types of airlines that you are ever likely to fly on.

Stay safe if you are driving to the airport. Then relax.

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