Safest? Not Hardly

Safety statistics seem to be geared to the audience. For the flying public, aviation officials affirm that travel by airliner is the safest form of transportation. The growing time between fatal accidents — in the U.S. at least — is often cited as proof that airliner travel is as safe as watching television in one’s home.

For the aviation industry, however, a different set of statistics is used to emphasize the need to improve air safety. The data are compiled by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). They are not advertized to the public, so finding the number of accidents is not easy. The record of accidents was published recently by the FAA as part of its regulatory evaluation of safety management systems, which the FAA has decreed for all scheduled airlines in the U.S., which is 90 operators, from the largest (more than 47 airplanes) to the smallest (less than 10 airplanes on the roster). In this document, intended to show why operators need to improve their safety, is an impressive and frightening list of accidents. The public has no idea.

In announcing last January the requirement for airlines to adopt safety management systems, FAA administrator Michael Huerta referred to 100 accidents in recent years as justification for the procedures mandated to pro-actively reduce them.

In his public press conference, Huerta understated the amount of mayhem and breakage. The full details in the regulatory evaluation present an absolutely stark picture. Not 100 accidents, but 123 accidents involving Part 121 air carriers for the period October 2000 through June 2010. Part 121 represents the scheduled airline industry.

In his public press conference, FAA boss Michael Huerta understated the number of accidents

In his public press conference, FAA boss Michael Huerta
understated the number of accidents

It takes four full pages just to list the briefest details of each accident: date, deaths/injuries to aircraft occupants, damage to aircraft, and so forth.

The FAA’s explanation of the dollar costs of human injury and aircraft damage is revealing:

The human toll:

“From the 123 accidents, there were 424 fatalities, 27 serious injuries, and 110 minor injuries. The associated economic values (in base year 2010 dollars) are $8.9 million for an avoided fatality, $930,300 for an avoided serious injury, and $26,580 for an avoided minor injury.”

As stated, these dollar figures are for one airplane occupant. If we tote up the dollar figures for all fatalities and injuries, the cost of this bloody mayhem to the industry was in excess of $3.8 billion. Looked at another way, the carnage over the 117 months from October 2000 to June 2010 exacted a cost of more than $32 million a month. To further narrow the time window, the human toll of accidents costs the industry a million dollars a day. It is fair to state that virtually no passengers are aware of the average daily costs of deaths and injuries, although $1 million per day suggests that an average passenger could well become part of this expensive calculus.

The aircraft toll:

“In a majority of accidents used for this analysis, airplane damage occurred. To quantify benefits for averting future hull damage, monetary values are estimated based on the degree of damage to the hull. In 10 of the 123 historical accidents, airplane damage was categorized as ‘destroyed’. Destroyed airplanes are valued at wholesale price. In 85 of the accidents, airplane damage was classified as ‘substantial’. Airplanes that sustain substantial damage are valued at 13 percent of wholesale. The FAA does not have a set value for accidents in which ‘minor’ aircraft damage was incurred … the value of averting ‘minor’ hull damage is estimated to be 5 percent of an airplane’s wholesale value.”

The FAA does not give figures for wholesale prices of destroyed aircraft. However, airlines generally order airplanes in multiple numbers from manufacturers, and they leverage these group orders to obtain significant price discounts of 20% or more. A B737 twinjet can be had for less than $100 million a copy, and larger airliners can be bought at a group discount for slightly more than $100 million apiece. It is reasonable, therefore, to use an average discounted price of an airliner as $100 million. This figure will be used as the “wholesale price” for our starting point.

Given that 10 airplanes were destroyed during this period, we are looking at a cost of $1 billion. For the 85 airliners with substantial damage, the cost would be $13 million per airplane; figure a total cost of $1.1 billion. For the baker’s dozen airplanes with minor damage, assume $65 million in total damages.

Using this methodology, the total price of wrecked, beat up, and damaged aircraft exceeds $2.1 billion for the period of October 2000 to June 2010. Divide by the 117-month interval between these two dates, and damage costs exceed $18.5 million per month. Per day, the price works out to more than $60,000. Again, what passenger knows that the nation’s fleet of 4,000 airliners sustains damages of this amount, on average, each and every day?

In addition, the FAA is counting only accidents — those events that rise to a defined level of bloodletting and broken aluminum (hospitalization for more than 24 hours and at least $1 million in damages to the aircraft).

Below this threshold, there are many more incidents. How many? There are no widely-accepted figures, but industry experts generally ascribe 10 incidents to every accident. Using this metric, there were more than 1,350 accidents and incidents during the 3,300 days covered from October 2000 to June 2010. Everything from a major airline crash to a seated passenger sustaining a cut on the head from baggage spilling out of an overhead bin. Accidents and incidents, combined, occurred at the average rate of once every 2.5 days.

Hidden in-flight fire incident involving insulation blankets

Hidden in-flight fire incident involving insulation blankets

Measuring the months between deadly crashes may be useful for public relations, but beneath this “tip of the iceberg”, as it were, lurks an astonishing amount of wanton damage, bent and dinged aluminum, contusions, trips, falls, dropped items, fuel spills, smoke in the cabin, near-collisions and dangerous confusion.

Whenever an industry official proclaims that airline travel is the safest form of transportation, be wary. The most casual examination, as done here, suggests that the risks of air travel are much higher than publicly proclaimed by the FAA and those within the industry the agency supposedly regulates.

Why don’t airlines compete for business on the basis of safety? The answer is obvious: the safety record is horrible.