Why Air Travel is The Safest Mode of Transportation?

2. Quantifying Terrorism

The tragic events of the morning of 9/11 changed the world forever, especially when it comes to flying. Even 20 years later, the event still looms large in our collective consciousness, and it’s fair to say that the world of aviation and flight security in particular will be the same.

Still, 9/11 hardly invented the scare over hijackings. The first documented hijacking dates all the way back to 1930, performed by Peruvian activists, while the first commercial hijacking took place in Macau in 1948, killing all but one passenger about the flight bound for Hong Kong.

The 1970s saw a spate of them, including simultaneous hijackings in 1970 carried out by a terrorist organization (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) on planes destined for US and European destinations, with Jewish passengers in particular singled out.

The late 60s and 70s also saw hijackings attempt to divert planes to Cuba. The situation was so bad during this period that between 1868 and 1972 there were an incredible 130 hijackings, with the situation getting so bad that “Take Me to Cuba!” became something of a punchline.

One of the most infamous pre-9/11 hijackings was TWA Flight 847, in which Hezbollah terrorists hijacked a plane bound from Athens to Rome, sought out passengers with “Jewish-sounding” names, and forced a two week-long hostage situation at an airport in Beirut.

But for as horrific and unforgivable as actions such as these were, the actual risk of terrorism is negligible today, and has dropped dramatically since 9/11 due to changes in security and airplane construction (for example, improved cockpit doors).

In the 20+ years since 9/11 there have been “only” 50 hijackings, none of which occurred in the United States.

To return to our stats game, Nate Silver at Five Thirty Eight crunched the numbers and found that there is roughly one instance of plane-related terrorist activity for every 11,569,297,667 miles flown over the past decade.

As Silver helpfully points out, that distance is as much as 1,459,664 trips around the globe, or two round trips to Neptune and back.

There were 674 passengers on the flights affected by terrorist activity in this span of time, compared with roughly 7,015,630,000 passengers.

To return to a previous example, Silver estimates that you could be struck by lightning 20 times and that would still be statistically more probable than boarding a flight on which terrorist activity occurs.

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Conclusion

So, how dangerous is learning to fly? Or, flying a plane in general? It’s only as dangerous as the pilot.

Part of learning to fly is using checklists and understanding the flight conditions in order to minimize any danger. In addition, pilots are taught to recognize circumstances that may prevent them from completing their flight and plan accordingly.

So, forget the statistics. The most dangerous part of learning to fly is the drive to the airport.

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Do I need to keep my mask on?

Yes, most airlines are asking people to keep them on for the duration of their flight. You should know that the air on the plane is pretty clean: Commercial planes recycle cabin air using High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, so the air might not be fresh, but it is scrubbed. HEPA filters catch 99 percent of airborne microbes, according to the International Air Transportation Association, an industry group.

Before going to the airport, how should I prepare?

Flying has always been a high-touch exercise so think about all those points and how you can minimize them. Wrapping yourself head to toe in plastic wrap is not really necessary, but you should carry — and use — a mask, wipes and hand sanitizer. Some experts suggest wearing gloves, though the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance suggests they are not necessary.

Most airlines suggest that travelers download their app for touchless boarding, which will minimize the number of times you have to hand over documents or touch screens. Think about whether you want to check a bag or if you can make the trip with a carry-on (experts don’t necessarily think one is better than the other). Some airlines have shut down self-service kiosks and others, like United, have begun rolling out touchless kiosks that allow customers to print bag tags using their own devices to scan a QR code.

Should we really be flying in rainstorms?

Here’s the thing. The prospect of taking off in torrential downpours gives plenty of people the willies. But the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has your back. All aircraft are required by the FAA to meet certain safety thresholds, including standing up to a good old-fashioned thunderstorm. Flying through clouds, especially when it’s raining cats and dogs, might have you throwing back your Jack and Coke faster than you anticipated – but your plane is designed to handle a significant rainstorm. It won’t go springing a leak like the studio walk-up you rented that one summer in Brooklyn.

The one exception to this rule is freezing rain, which might cause ice to accumulate on the wings faster than a de-icing solution can dissolve it. In that case, you won’t take off at all. So, while you’ll be stuck reading an outdated Us Weekly in the terminal – you’ll be safe.

Did I feel safe flying?

After taking three flights on American Airlines, the answer to that is yes…ish. But I don’t necessarily think it would have been that way under different circumstances.

I recently took three flights on American AirlinesI recently took three flights on American Airlines

In theory what makes me most uneasy about flying is the lack of control I have over my environment. If I feel unsafe in a restaurant (or virtually anywhere else), I can just get up and leave. That’s not really an option on a plane.

If a flight is 100% full and the person next to you is coughing constantly and/or not wearing their mask correctly, there’s not a whole lot you can do.

We know that wearing masks helps a lot with slowing the spread of coronavirus, and we hope that everyone around us is wearing masks properly. While passengers are supposed to wear masks:

  • Passengers can claim to have health conditions preventing them from wearing masks
  • Not everyone is going to wear a mask correctly, and US airlines don’t typically dictate that masks have to go over your nose and mouth
  • People can take off masks when eating or drinking, and some people really take their time with that; in other words, having a can of Coke in front of you for 30 minutes qualifies as “drinking”

We were lucky in the sense that our upgrades to first class cleared on all three of our flights. I sat next to Ford on all flights, so we didn’t have any seatmates. I was put at ease by the fact that I felt like I had some control over our situation.

I’ve never valued domestic first class as muI’ve never valued domestic first class as much as on this trip

While we were still within six feet of other people, we at least had some separation, and we weren’t directly facing anyone (since everyone faces forwards).

However, let me say this — this experience made me really appreciate that airlines like Alaska, Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest, are blocking middle seats.

I would feel incredibly uneasy if I were in a regular economy seat on a flight that’s 100% full, sitting next to a stranger. That’s especially true if the person next to me then takes off their mask for extended periods of time to eat or drink.

If Winston can wear a mask correctly, you can tooIf Winston can wear a mask correctly, you can too


No treats for you, Winston!

I realize I’m lucky that I have airline status so I can often be upgraded. I’m not trying to say “oh, everyone should fly first class,” because I recognize that’s not an option for everyone. However, I have the utmost appreciation and respect for the airlines that are choosing to block seats, and I would specifically seek them out.

I wouldn’t want to be on a full flight seateI wouldn’t want to be on a full flight seated next to a stranger in economy

The airlines not blocking seats have argued that the airlines that are blocking seats are exclusively doing so as a PR stunt. Their argument is “well, if they’re not going to provide six feet between passengers there’s no point.” However, scientists have made it clear that some separation is better than no separation. It’s better to be two feet from someone than just inches from them.

When I fly in the future, I’ll do what I can to make sure I’m not stuck in a regular economy seat next to a stranger. For me that means either flying an airline that does block middle seats, doing what I can to secure an upgrade in advance, or if it’s reasonably priced, just outright paying for first class (while you may have a seatmate in first class, at least you’re going to be further apart, since the seats are much wider).

Southwest Airlines might be seeing more of me!Southwest Airlines might be seeing more of me!

Furthermore, I’d also wear a face shield in addition to a face mask the next time I fly. I’ve started doing this when I have to go to the supermarket. Does it look kind of humiliating? Yes. But the coronavirus is so far from being under control in the US, and it adds yet another layer of protection.

Not today, Satan.

Our not-so-proofread face shieldsOur not-so-proofread face shields

Reasons For Aircraft Safety

There are many reasons why flying a small plane is as safe as it is.

Pilot Training

First, pilots are trained to a much higher degree than drivers. There is much more to learn to become a pilot than there is to drive a car. The “rules of the road” are much more complex and so is the aircraft. As such, it takes much more effort and skill to fly an aircraft.

More Regulated / Higher Standards

Aircraft operate in a much more regulated environment. Aircraft are maintained to a much higher standard than cars and have redundant systems to drastically reduce the chances of mechanical failure.

Big Sky

The sky is big and aircraft are small (relatively speaking, of course). When flying, aircraft are far more spread out than cars are. Aircraft are also spead out in two planes, both horizontally and vertically.

While there are certainly “highways in the sky”, airplanes don’t operate in anywhere near the same type of proximity as cars do, which dramatically reduces the potential of collision.

How much wind is too much wind?

We all know the feeling of a leaping stomach during spells of turbulence in the air. In-flight bumps and jostles aren’t always caused by wind, but aircraft turbulence can be the result of a strong jet stream or windy storm. The good news is that flying in extreme winds is generally safe, even if it does cause you to spill your cocktail or mean you can’t use the restroom for a while. During take-off and landing, winds are really only a factor when they’re crosswinds. Even then, your plane can withstand around 25 knots (or about 30 mph) of wind coming across the runway.

See, guys, flying through a storm isn’t so bad. We can’t promise you won’t need to keep your barf bag close, but you’re gonna make it to your destination just fine. Happy travels!

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