7. The risk of travel

An aircraft accident is defined as an occurrence associated with the operation of an aircraft which takes place between the time any person boards the aircraft with the intention of flight and all such persons have disembarked, and in which any person suffers death or serious injury, or in which the aircraft receives substantial damage.

Transport is a classic case of the public perception of risk being at variance with the actual numbers. The statistics range up and down, particularly in mass transport, where one incident can cause a large number of fatalities.

Another feature of transport risk is that the impact of the numbers is very dependent on how you represent them. Basically, there are three possible ways of quoting transport risk; in terms of distance travelled, number of journeys or time of travel. Interested parties tend to choose the form of presentation that suits their own purposes.

The air transport industry, for example, will almost always choose a per km basis, which is optimum for them, as most fatalities occur on landing and take-off, while the distances are large. Land based transport organisations, in contrast, will tend to select fatalities per number of journeys or hours of travel, since the risks are uniformly spread. Thus both are able to demonstrate that theirs is the safest form of transport. The actual statistics are given below (taken from an article by Roger Ford in Modern Railways, Oct 2000 and based on a DETR survey). They record the number of fatalities per billion km, journeys or hours of travel.

km

journeys

hours

Air 0.05

Bus 4.3

Bus 11.1

Bus 0.4

Rail 20

Rail 30

Rail 0.6

Van 20

Air 30.8

Van 1.2

Car 40

Water 50

Water 2.6

Foot 40

Van 60

Car 3.1

Water 90

Car 130

Pedal cycle 44.6

Air 117

Foot 220

Foot 54.2

Pedal cycle 170

Pedal cycle 550

Motorcycle 108.9

Motorcycle 1,640

Motorcycle 4,840

The one thing that stands out is that, whichever way you look at it, motorcycles are disastrously the most dangerous form of transport.

Bus and rail are the safest form of transport by any measure, while road traffic injuries represent the leading cause in worldwide injury-related deaths, their popularity undermines this statistic.

Airplane accident causes:

  • air traffic control error
  • bird strike
  • cargo hold/cabin fire
  • design flaw
  • sabotage/explosive device
  • fuel starvation
  • hijacking (resulting in fatalities)
  • lightning
  • pilot incapacitation
  • pilots shot by passengers

The number of accidents per flight decreases with time. But the number of fatalities per year is changing and does not decrease.

Nowadays, aircraft accidents are less likely than 20 years ago. Nevertheless, the growing number of flying aircraft and their increasing capacity cannot result in a reduction of onboard fatalitie.

7.1 Statistics

The table above is compiled from the PlaneCrashInfo.com accident database and represents 1,300 fatal accidents involving commercial aircraft, world-wide, from 1950 thru 2008 for which a specific cause is known. Aircraft with 10 or less people aboard, military aircraft, private aircraft and helicopters are not included.

"Pilot error (weather related)" represents accidents in which pilot error was the cause but brought about by weather related phenomena. "Pilot error (mechanical related)" represents accidents in which pilot error was the cause but brought about by some type of mechanical failure. "Other human error" includes air traffic controller errors, improper loading of aircraft, fuel contamination and improper maintenance procedures. Sabotage includes explosive devices, shoot downs and hijackings. "Total pilot error" is the total of all three types of pilot error (in red).

Cause

1950s

1960s

1970s

1980s

1990s

2000s

All

Pilot Error

40

32

24

25

27

25

29

Pilot Error (weather related)

11

18

14

17

21

17

16

Pilot Error (mechanical related)

7

5

4

2

4

3

4

Total Pilot Error

58

57

42

44

53

45

50

Other Human Error

0

8

9

6

8

9

7

Weather

16

10

13

15

9

8

12

Mechanical Failure

21

20

23

21

21

28

22

Sabotage

5

5

11

13

10

9

9

Other Cause

0

2

2

1

0

1

1

 

Where there were multiple causes, the most prominent cause was used. Source: PlaneCrashInfo.com database.

Accidents and Fatalities by Phase of Flight: Source: Statistical Summary of Commercial Jet Airplane Accidents, Boeing.

Which type of flying is safer?

Type of Flight

Fatalities per million flight hours

Airliner (Scheduled and non-scheduled)

4.03

Commuter Airline (Scheduled )

10.74

Commuter Plane (Non-scheduled - Air taxi on demand)

12.24

General Aviation (Private)

22.43

Sources: NTSB Accidents and Accident Rates by NTSB Classification 1998-2007.

Odds of being involved in a fatal accident

Odds of being on an airline flight which results in at least one fatality

Odds of being killed on a single airline flight

Top 25 airlines with the best records
1 in 8.47 million

Top 25 airlines with the best records
1 in 13.57 million

Bottom 25 with the worst records
1 in 830,428

Bottom 25 with the worst records
1 in 1.13 million

Source: OAG Aviation & PlaneCrashInfo.com accident database, 1989 – 2008.

Survival rate of passengers on aircraft involved in fatal accidents carrying 10+ passengers

% surviving

 

1930s

21

1940s

20

1950s

24

1960s

19

1970s

25

1980s

34

1990s

35

2000s

24

Source: PlaneCrashInfo.com accident database.

Survival rate of passengers on aircraft ditching during controlled flight

Survival rate of passengers on aircraft ditching during controlled flight

53%

For the following graphs we used lists of accidents and incidents involving commercial air transport accidents, road (bus) accidents and rail accidents, grouped by the years in which the accidents and incidents occurred.

Lists of accidents and incidents involving transports
Lists of accidents and incidents involving transports
Lists of accidents and incidents involving transports

The first graph represents the casualties of commercial air transport accidents (2000–2009) in the world, the second represents the casualties of notable road (bus) accidents (2000–2009) in the world and the third represents the casualties of notable rail accidents (2000–present) in the world

Regarding the road transportation there are much more variables when dealing with road accidents, as it involves cars, drivers, objects, pedestrians, meteorological changes and lots of other factors.

Rail transport is the safest form of land travel. Trains can travel at very high speed, but they are heavy, are unable to deviate from the track and require a great distance to stop. Possible accidents include derailment (jumping the track), a head-on collision with another train and collision with an automobile or other vehicle at a level crossing. The most important safety measures are railway signalling and gates at level crossings. Train whistles warn of the presence of a train, while trackside signals maintain the distances between trains. Vandalism and negligence is responsible for many accidents.

The last two graphs, below represent a comparison between the three means of transportation.

Lists of accidents and incidents involving transports
Lists of accidents and incidents involving transports

Contact coordinator

Dr. Corieri Patricia

von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics
Chaussée de Waterloo 72
BE 1640 Rhode-Saint-Genèse

Tel: +32 (0)2 359 96 55
Fax: +32 (0)2 359 96 00

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