Air Travel in 2014 Has Been Anecdotally Disastrous, but One of the Safest Ever Statistically

The tragic news of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 seems to close a year of airline disasters. First there was the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and its 239 passengers and crewmembers. Then another Malaysian flight, MH17, was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 on board. A week later, to much less press coverage, Air Algérie Flight 5017 disappeared over the Sahara Desert and claimed 116 lives. All these disasters have dramatic death tolls and a mystery to them -- where the plane went, why it crashed, or who exactly caused it. In May of this year, I wrote a story about a near miss I was aboard for and the data considerations surrounding mid-air collisions and near collisions.

In the story and the ensuing press coverage, I tried to emphasize that air travel is tremendously safe. I have no qualms about boarding an airplane, though my expression of this confidence was often edited out of my television interviews (as a result I tended to argue for live broadcasts over pre-taped interviews). One of the points I made in the piece is the distinction between the "statistical" life and the "actual" (or "anecdotal") life. Essentially, a single occurrence like a plane crash has a visibility and visceral enormity that can eclipse the statistical reality behind those occurrences.

The classic example of the statistical/anecdotal divide is speed limits. We accept that raising a speed limit X many miles per hour likely means Y more fatalities on the road. Those lives are numbers though. A mother trapped in an overturned minivan or a teenage driver breaking through the guardrails -- those are the anecdotal lives that make up the numbers. They act on our emotions entirely differently than cold data. Hearing those stories in place of the number Y might even lead to a different choice in speed limits. Most often though, the anecdotal tends to obscure the statistical reality.

That point is especially important to remember as this year draws to an end. The year in air travel has been a terrible one anecdotally, but one of the best ever statistically. 

 Chart by Nick Evershed for  The Guardian

Chart by Nick Evershed for The Guardian

Nick Evershed, a data journalist for the Guardian Australia, compiled the year-end numbers on air disasters from a variety of sources and charted them in this excellent rundown. The accident rate has been in a long decline that continued this year.

 Mourners of the 298 people aboard Flight MH17 leave flowers in a makeshift memorial at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.  Photo:  Roman Boed  via Flickr Creative Commons

Mourners of the 298 people aboard Flight MH17 leave flowers in a makeshift memorial at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. Photo: Roman Boed via Flickr Creative Commons

As for fatalities, the count is up slightly -- the highest since 2010 according to the Airline Safety Network (ASN) or 2005 according to the Bureau of Aircraft Accident Archives (BAAA). The ASN data excludes terrorist or hostile events, thereby leaving out MH17's 298 deaths.  Both figures include AirAsia's 162 passengers and crewmembers however. I recommend reading the Guardian article for the full story. Also, currently at the top of Reddit's r/DataIsBeautiful subreddit is a charting of the same ASN data with the title "Airline Crashes Since 2000...contrary to what the news might say 2014 has been one of the safest years in the airline industry."

Air travel this year has indeed been tremendously safe, in spite of all the high-profile accidents and attacks. The news right now is working though that same anecdotal v. statistical divide I mentioned in that May article in Medium. It's no surprise that the recent AirAsia tragedy has led many to reflect on what seems to be a particularly dangerous year in air travel. As we do look back though, I would just encourage us to remember the data as well as the human stories.