This commentary appeared in Atlanta Journal-Constitution on September 3, 2002.
Air travel is safe. In fact, statistics show that despite the terrible events
of Sept. 11 and the continuing threat of terrorism, 2001 was the safest year
to fly since 1946.
Inevitably, 2001 will be remembered for aviation catastrophe. Even so, the
34 fatal crashes of multi-engine aircraft last year, including the four planes
hijacked on Sept. 11, amounted to an all-time low. According to the Aviation
Security Network, there were 1,118 occupant fatalities in the United States
and Canada, including the 265 aboard the Sept. 11 flights. That put 2001 well
below the 1971-2001 average of 1,451, and even below the 1991-2000 average of
By comparison, the U.S. Transportation Department reported in August that
deaths in traffic accidents in the United States hit an 11-year high of 42,116
Many people fear flying today. To be sure, many were nervous about getting
on airplanes before Sept. 11. For them, the terrorist threat has both confirmed
and increased their anxieties. For others, the horrific images of Sept. 11,
now engraved in our memories, have made fear of flying a new sensation.
Having flown nearly 3 million miles in the last 20 years and having served
as a member of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, for
personal and professional reasons I keep track of the stats. They show that
as airline travel has increased, airline accident rates have decreased. In the
1960s, there were fewer than 5 million passenger aircraft departures a year
worldwide. By the end of the century, air traffic had more than tripled to between
17 million and 18 million departures a year.
At the same time, safety improved dramatically. From between 3 and 6 accidents
per million takeoffs in the early 1960s, the accident rate fell to less than
one crash per million takeoffs by the 1970s. By 1997, it had been further reduced
to 0.3 accidents per million departures in the United States. Statistics, however,
don't determine perceptions. There are many reasons people feel safer in automobiles
than in airplanes. In automobiles, people are on the ground; they feel more
in control, and they feel they are far more likely to survive a crash if it
Added to the fear of flying itself are the increased anxieties about terrorism,
which inevitably are reinforced by the highly visible security measures themselves.
Boarding an airplane today does not permit one to forget the terrible images
of Sept. 11.
Terrorists, by definition, want to terrorize us and paralyze us with fear.
They want us to react with our emotions instead of our minds. When we understand
this, and when we understand the actual danger posed by air travel and terrorists,
we can make wiser choices about the risks we face in a world that will never
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