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Was 2014 a Dangerous Year For Air Travel?

To those following the news it felt like these tragedies must add up to the worst year air travel has possibly ever seen; surprisingly though that this is not at all true.

by Lee Zachariah
Jan 9 2015, 1:19am

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For many, 2014 will be remembered as the most disastrous year in aviation. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared in March with 239 aboard. In July, MH-17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing the 298 on board. That same month, TransAsia Airways Flight 222 crashed in Taiwan killing 48, and Air Algerie Flight 5017 crashed in Mali, with over a hundred dead. We closed 2014 out with a search for AirAsia Flight AZ-8501, which disappeared on its way to Singapore.

To those following the news – and it's been incredibly difficult to avoid it – it felt as if this litany of tragedy must surely add up to the worst year air travel has possibly ever seen; and that commercial air travel is an increasingly risky prospect.

It might be a surprise to learn that this is not at all true.

According to the AviationSafety Network, 2014 saw a total of 21 fatal airliner accidents, with a total of 990 fatalities.

Although this is a massive contrast with 2013's 265 fatalities, 2012's 475 fatalities and 2011's 524 fatalities, delving deeper into the context of these numbers reveals a different story.

Statistics are, by necessity, unmoved by statistical anomalies and those two well-documented Malaysian Airline flights clearly qualify as anomalous. Authorities are yet to establish a clear outline of the events that led to the downing of MH-17, but a split second decision from a Russian separatist with a surface-to-air missile – if that is indeed what caused it – alters 2014's final figure by nearly 300. No matter what the exact motive and who the perpetrator turns out to be, this aberration is not indicative of the current state of air travel.

What hypothetical circumstance would cause the MH-17 crash to be indicative of air travel? If more countries devolved into civil war, if commercial airliners were under regular threat from rebels with surface-to-air missiles, then this would be a sign of the times.

An increasingly worrying factor is that the growth in commercial air travel has left many airlines scrambling to meet demand. Indonesia's domestic aviation market is, according to Reuters, growing at 21 percent annually. Safety is traded for commercial concerns and the European Union has banned many airlines whose safety standards cannot be satisfactorily verified.

Now, armed with that information, look at how many of 2014's accidents have occurred in Southeast Asia. That is not a statistical anomaly.

Take this information on a global scale. PlaneCrashInfo.com tells us that flying on one of the world's major airlines gives us a 1 in 4.7 million chance of being killed.

These tragedies actually underscore how safe air travel is, Aviation Safety Network president Harro Ranter told NBC News. Because the growth of commercial air travel is so rapid, the number could have been much higher. The number of accidents may have increased, but the number of flights have increased by so much more, and so the percentage shrinks.

It's not difficult to see why our perceptions are so far removed from the reality, and what role the 24 hour news cycle played. The first missing airline was both a tragedy and a compelling mystery: the search for answers kept the story fresh in the perpetual maelstrom of all-day news channels and social media, as speculation and red herrings fuelled what remains to this day an unknowable event.

Subsequent airline tragedies would be given closer attention as a result, but the next disaster – the shooting down of MH-17 over Ukraine – had its own compelling angle in the form of Vladmir Putin and Russia's unconvincing conspiracy theories. The proximity of these tragedies meant that any subsequent airline disaster would occupy more than a passing mention in the news cycle: a pattern was forming in the international conversation, and isolated, unrelated incidents would in our minds become proof of a pattern.

As far as we know, the disappearance of MH-370 and the downing of MH-17 have no connection but it's almost impossible to discuss one without referring to the other. It feels irresponsible not to. A narrative inevitably builds and a general consensus becomes history.

The facts tell a very different story. Despite standalone tragedies and our desire to draw lines between distinct events, commercial air travel is safer than it ever has been. Hopefully, 2015 will prove this not just factually, but anecdotally.

Follow Lee on Twitter: @leezachariah