Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Irrational Destruction
Air Safety in the Terrorist Age

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, November 13, 2001 --  

As the airline industry braces for yet another financial blow following the crash of an American Airlines jet in New York, American passengers are considering withdrawing further from air travel to sooth their frayed nerves. Such actions could prove fatal for ailing airlines, and could exacerbate industry job losses at a time when the U.S. economy is already plunging into recession.

The tragedy of the public reaction is that it is both horribly destructive and completely irrational. Regardless of the cause of the most recent crash, the fact remains that airline travel is unquestionably safe. This isn't a question of airport security -- it's a question of cold, hard statistics.

Take September, for example. This was one of the worst months for aviation safety in history. Four jets crashed in the suicide attacks on New York and Washington, killing everyone on board. Airports were then closed for weeks, and many flights were cancelled or half-empty for the remainder of the month, greatly shrinking the total number of flights that completed safely. Indeed, it is hard to find more frightening month for calculating airline safety statistics.

But even in this month -- one of the worst in recent history -- the numbers just aren't that bad. Passenger deaths from the four downed jets totaled 236.1 Throughout the month, 30,258,000 people boarded planes in the United States.2 This means that if you could go back in time to September and randomly choose a plane to board, you would have a 99.999 percent chance of getting off safely. Stated in reverse, the odds of a single passenger being in a plane crash in September were less than 1 in 100,000.

Compare this with the risk of getting in an automobile -- something most Americans do every day without even a moment's hesitation. Last year, 36,249 people died from crashes while riding in a car.3 If we conservatively assume that every single person in the country rode in a car last year (about 280 million people), that corresponds to an annual fatality rate of about 13 in 100,000. You can divide this by 12 to get a monthly risk figure that is just a little higher than 1 in 100,000.

What does this mean? That even in the most infamous month in airline history, air travel was still less dangerous than riding in a car. It doesn't make any sense for people to be afraid to take a plane once per month, when they are perfectly willing to drive around in their cars all month long at greater risk. Given all the hype that has followed recent airline disasters, this may be hard to believe. But it's true. Although it is certainty that more airplanes will crash in the future, it is incredibly unlikely that you will be riding on one that does.

While it's not surprising that irrational behavior has followed such frightening events, it is still terribly destructive to the economy. This irrational destruction hasn't been limited to the airline industry. The same panic has spread to loosely-related quarters. The Washington subway system, to give just one example, has been hit by a financial crunch attributed to a sharp decrease in tourists who have been frightened away from the capital.4 Other tourist-oriented facilities in New York, Washington, and beyond have been similarly pinched.

As the impact of the panic trickles down to more industries, plans for expansion are being curtailed in favor of layoffs. The result: greater unemployment, less economic growth, and a deeper recession.

The worst part about this economic tragedy is that Americans are doing it to themselves. The airline crashes, the collapse of the World Trade Center, and the anthrax scare have been of far less economic consequence than the panic that has followed. This panic is completely irrational. For most Americans, the odds of being a victim of a terrorist attack are infinitesimally small.

If Americans were smart, they would continue to get on airplanes like nothing had ever happened. This doesn't need to be done out of patriotic duty. This doesn't have to be done as a means of getting back at terrorists. Americans should do it simply because it is the productive, rational and safe thing to do.


1. AirDisaster.Com Accident Database, November 2001

2. Air Transport Association, Monthly Passenger Traffic Report, October 27, 2001

3. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, Fatality Analysis Reporting System, November 2001

4. Washington Post, Metro Hurt by Economic, Terrorism Fears, Friday, November 9, 2001