Friday, March 13, 2009

How Risky Is Flying?

Ok, as some of you may know, I’m what airlines consider a “serious” frequent travel, sometimes I complain that I don’t have the miles or the status that some people I know have, but if I compare myself with the statistics, I do fly a lot. Now, when we think about flying and the risks involved on it, the first thing we think is all the accidents and fatalities we’ve seen on TV in the last year, 2 years, then, the following, statistics comes to our head:

We all know that the probabilities to die in an airplane accident are minimum, some people have said that it is more likely to die of a Thunder strike than an air accident.

One day a question came to my mind, if we know that the chances to die are so low, why MOST people (including me) are more afraid to flight than taking the road / train? As soon as we hit the smallest turbulence, ALL the people react in one way or another (except the flight attendants). So, what’s the difference between hitting some turbulence and experience a bumpy bus ride in the middle of the rain? why are we less afraid in the second scenario ?

Well, according to David Ropeik  (Instructor in Risk Communication at the Harvard School of Public Health), the fact that we are NOT in control of the aircraft and that 99.99% of the population is clueless on how to operate a plane, we feel way more insecure that driving, which is actually more dangerous.

Another interesting factor is:
what denominator are we using when calculating the risk of flying? Here are some options:

  1. Dividing the number of people who die into the total number of people, which gives you the risk for the average person?
  2. Dividing the number of victims into the number of total flights all passengers took, which gives the risk per flight?
  3. Dividing the number of victims into the total number of miles all of them flew, which gives you the risk per mile?
In case you don’t know, 2007 and 2008 reported ZERO (as of 0) deaths caused by Airplanes accidents in the US, do you want to see the number of casualties by bus or car? I don’t think so…
Going back to Mr Ropeik’s argument, and I quote:
“These 3 options produce accurate numbers, but which one is most relevant to you depends on your personal flying patterns. Some fliers take lots of short flights and some take longer ones, for example. Since the overwhelming majority of the few plane crashes that do occur take place in connection with takeoffs and landings, the risk is less a matter of how far you fly and more a matter of how often. If you're a frequent flier, then the risk per flight means more. For occasional long-distance fliers, the risk per mile means more. A frequent, long-distance flier would want to consider both.
Here's another number problem with the risk of flying: do you calculate the risk on the basis of one year, or an average of five years, or 10, or 20? Most years no plane crashes occur, or at least very few. So the number of victims per year goes up radically in years when there are crashes. Just look at the spikes in the number of deaths from plane crashes by year in the graph at right.
Risk perception is not just a matter of the facts
Another "feelings factor" that informs our perception of risk is awareness. The more aware of a risk we are, the more concerned about it we are. Which explains why, when there is a plane crash in the news, flying seems scarier to many of us, even though that one crash hasn't changed the overall statistical risk much.
I haven’t figured out yet what is my exact risk factor, what I can tell is that I drove the other day to Edmonton and I found myself in the middle of a snow blizzard… Not funny, so, while I live in Canada, Air Canada will be my best and loyal friend…
If you want to read Mr Ropeik’s article, go here:
If you want to read the List of accidents and incidents involving commercial aircraft, go here:
Safe flights!!!

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