Sunday, March 29, 2015

Should I be afraid of flying? Looking at risk in light of the Germanwings disaster

On March 24th, 2015, one of the worst possible scenarios in aviation happened: A co-pilot purposefully caused an aviation disaster. Even worse is that all signs point to a fifteen minute long descent where the co-pilot purposefully kept the pilot out of the cockpit and where the people on the plane knew what was happening. Crashing into a mountain is unfathomable in itself, but the feeling of helplessness that the pilot and others on board must have felt make it far worse.

Photo by Aero Icarus
Given this horror and the very bad year of commercial disasters in 2014, should we stop flying or be afraid of flying? My answer is no. While there is always a risk when getting on a plane, flying is still one of the safest ways to travel and safer than many things we do without a thought on a daily basis.

There are various sources that peg the odds of dying in a plane crash somewhere in the range of one in a couple million for any given flight, but perhaps the risk published by the national safety council tells a better story. They publish information about what the odds of dying from a particular cause over the course of a lifetime on their website here (helpfully, they note that the overall odds of dying by any cause is 1 in 1).

Odds of dying by "Air and Space Incidents": 1 in 8,357

Odds of dying by "Choking from Inhalation and Ingestion of Food": 1 in 3,649

Odds of dying by "Motor Vehicle Crash": 1 in 112

...and there you have it. Getting on a plane is objectively much safer than things we do every day, like drive to work or eat anything at all.

Of course, there is also the subjective experience, which is often feel that things we don't have control in (like being a passenger in a flying metal tube) are more dangerous than things that we feel we have control over (like pilot a metal cube on a highway with thousands of other metal cubes that act completely on their own). Hopefully, being able to look at the actual odds can help us more rationally judge the risk (and control our fear, if the recent news is bothering you) when we do need to take the next trip on a plane.