How Safe Is The Commercial Passenger Industry Globally?

Rick Margin
6 min readJan 11, 2024
The 737 Max.

The recent near catastrophic mid-air incident affecting a Boeing 737 Max-9 on the West Coast of the US brought the issue of passenger safety back into forefront. A few quick facts:

· The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) handles on average, 45,000 flights daily with 5,400 aircraft in the sky at peak operational times.

· Statista, a German data-gathering company, projects the 2024–2028 global growth rate for the travel business will increase 3.5% annually.

· Bloomberg claims the travel is a $15.5 trillion industry in 2023 — accounting for more than 11.6% of the global economy. This represents a 50% increase over its $10 trillion value in 2019, when travel represented 10.4% of the world’s gross domestic product.

The public is addicted to travel, and flying is their preferred transportation choice. The U.S. government began publishing statistics on the safety of commercial aviation in 1927.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) during the 21 year period beginning in 2000 and ending in 2021:

· US air carriers had a total of 779 air-related fatalities of which roughly two-thirds occurred on 911.

· There were no recorded fatalities in 13 of those 21 years.

Source: https://www.airlines.org/dataset/safety-record-of-u-s-air-carriers

Accidents are rare in [global] aviation. There were five fatal accidents (158 fatalities) among 32.2 million flights in 2022. This equates to a .11 per million flights. That tells us that flying is among the safest activities in which a person can engage” said Willie Walsh, the International Air Transport Association Director General.

This chart illustrates the global trend in fatalities from 1942 to 2015. 1972 was the worst year on record for the aviation industry, when 2,373 people lost their lives in 72 “hull-loss” accidents.

Traveling on a commercial airline is far safer than a car or a light or large truck. Here’s how they compare between 2015 and 2020 according to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Passenger Cars:

· 32,283,954 total crashes

· 8,831,566 total injuries

· 78,463 total fatalities

Light/Large Trucks:

· 29,817,940 total crashes

· 5,701,599 total injuries

· 65,641 total fatalities

Commercial Airlines:

· 176 total accidents

· 111 total injuries

· 5 total fatalities

Here’s a creative approach for comparing the risk that was calculated by FlyFright.com, a company that specializes in helping clients who fear flying. “Assuming you drive the standard 15,000 miles per year starting at age 16, it’ll take you approximately 67 years to drive 1,000,000 miles. Between the age of 16 and 83, you are statistically expected to be in about 4.5 vehicle crashes. Compared to the airline accident rate of 1.05 accidents for every 100,000 flights, you’d need to be on a flight every week for the next 1,923 years before being involved in an accident”.

Source: https://flyfright.com/plane-crash-statistics/#:~:text=From%202015%20to%202020%2C%20there,on%20a%20large%20commercial%20airplane.

The data I’ve presented supports the conclusion that the airline industry has an impeccable safety record vs other transportation options. But that statement is not true when the passenger jet was first introduced in the 1950’s. Commercial passenger loads, and speed were greatly increased with the introduction of jet powered airliners. The Boeing 707 was undoubtedly the most popular. It was launched in 1958 and carried 150–200 passengers and at a top speed of 600 mph, which represented a tremendous advancement. The UK and USSR both had introduced a smaller, slower and less reliable airliner in 1952 and 1956 respectively.

The Boeing 707.

If you’re younger than 50, the numbers and apparent carnage that I’m presenting next will shock you. Even those older readers may not recall the high frequency of airliner crashes during the years noted. Judged by today’s standards, these numbers don’t represent a safe industry. But as someone who lived through this period, most of the public rationalized the risk/reward and decided that both the benefits and sense of adventure were worth it. And, they turned out to be correct. This same pattern was occurring worldwide as were regular hijackings and occasional bombings.

I’ve researched the US crash history by both the year and type of passenger jetliner involved. The number of crashes and the type of jet aircraft are in parentheses. Fatal propeller-driven aircraft are noted in italicized brackets. Example: In 1967, there were a staggering 7 jetliner crashes and no propeller driven crashes.

1959 — The 1st Boeing 707 crash + [7]

1960 — No jet issues + [7] The 1st use of a flight recorder.

1961–707 (1) + [5]

1962 –707 (3) + [3]

1963–707 (1) / 720 + [2]

1964–707 (1) / F27 (2) / DC-8 (1) + [3]

1965–707 (2) / 727 (3) + [2]

1966 — BAC One-Eleven (1) / DC-9 (1) + [1]

1967 — DC-8 (1) / DC-9 (1) / F-27 (1) / BAC One-Eleven (1) / 727 (1) / 707 (1) / Convair 880 (1) + [0]

1968 — DC-9 (1) / DC-8 (1) / F227 (1) / F27 (1) + [5]

1969–727 (1) / DC-9 (1) / F227 (1) + [1]

1970–DC-9 (2) / DC-8 (3) + [1]

1971 — DC-9 (1) / 747 (1) / 727 (1) + [1]

1972 — F27 (1) / DC-9 (2) / DC-10 (1) / 737 (1) / L-1011 (1) + [3]

1973 — FH-227 (1) / DC-9 (1) / 707 (2) / DC-63 (1) / DC-10 (1) + [1]

1974 — DC-9 (1) / 727 (2) + [1]

1975–727 (1) / F27 (1) / DC-10 (1) + [1]

1976–1st year with no major US crashes

1977 — DC-8 (1) + [2]

1978 — DC-10 (1) / 727 (2) / DC-8 (1) + [1]

1979 — DC-10 (1) + [0]

1980 —No jet issues + [1]

1981 — L-1011 (1) + [0]

1982–737 (1) / DC-10 (1) / 727 (1) + [0]

1983 — DC-8 (1) / DC-9 (1) + [1]

1984 — No jet issues + [0]

1985 — L-188 (1) / L-1011 (1) / DC-9 (1) + [2]

1986 — No jet issues + [0]

1987 — MD-82 (1) / DC-9 (1) + [1]

1988–737 (1) / 727 (1) + [2]

1989–747 (1) / DC-9 (1) / DC-10 (1) / 737 (1) + [1]

1990–707 (1) / 727 (1) + [0]

1991–737 (2) / DC-9 (1) + [2]

1992 — DC-8 (1) / F-28 (1) / L-1011 (1) + [2]

1993 —No jet issues + [1]

1994 — DC-9 (1) / 737 (1) + [2]

1995 — DC-8 (1) / MD-83 (1) / 747 (1) + [1]

1996 — DC-9 (1) / MD-88 (1) / 747 (1) / DC-8 (1) + [1]

1997 — MD-11 (1) / DC-8 (1) + [1]

1998 — No jet issues + [1]

1999 — MD-82 (1) + [0]

Source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_accidents_and_incidents_involving_commercial_aircraft

This chart illustrates the impressive global progress the avaiation industry has made since the 1970’s. Keep in mind that annual passenger numbers were roughly 170k in the early 1970’s compared with 853 million in 2022.

This final slide provides a comparison of Boeing and Airbus’s backlog and shipments for May 2023. We have these 2 great companies to thank for the incredible quality performance we all enjoy today.

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Rick Margin

A curious guy interested in both understanding & writing about meaningful issues. Email @ ric62551@gmail.com. Join in at https://medium.com/@ric625