As a frequent public commentator on aviation security, I am often asked by people about to depart on vacation or business travel what they should do to ensure a safe journey. My usual answer is, "Drive carefully on the way to the airport." Statistically, it is probably the most dangerous part of the trip.
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 1,298.
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 in 2001.
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 takes place.
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 be risk-free.
Brian Michael Jenkins is a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit policy research and analysis institution.
This commentary originally appeared in Atlanta Journal-Constitution on September 3, 2002. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.