For once, news about why we're safer than we used to be

Flight 587 Noaa Photo Of Crash Site

Greetings, people of BoingBoing! It's an honor to be here...

I thought I'd start things off with a little anecdote that came into my mind as I was reading the paper yesterday morning in Seattle, on the first leg of my West Coast book tour...

It's mid-November 2001. My wife and I are living in the West Village, about a mile north of Ground Zero. We have an infant son, our first, who was born three days before 9/11. We've stuck it out in the city for two months through the external chaos of that period, and the internal chaos of being new parents, but finally mustered enough courage to pack our little family onto a plane to fly down to see relatives in Florida. As we're taking off from Newark, we have a spectacular view looking eastward across Manhattan and Brooklyn. And in the distance, at the very edge of the Atlantic Ocean, we can see flames and a plume of dark smoke billowing out from a spot on the Rockaways. I say to my wife, "That's a very ominous location for a big fire -- it's right in the departure flight path out of JFK."

My suspicions, unfortunately, turn out to be correct. That black plume was American Flight 587, which crashed after takeoff when its tail fin snapped off over Jamaica Bay. Interestingly, our pilot doesn't mention it until after we land, explaining that the authorities quickly identified the crash as an accident and not terrorism-related.

That was seven years ago. I bring up this story now because American 587 was the last fatal crash on U.S. shores involving a full-size jetliner. That is an incredible run, and for some reason it is almost never talked about. Seven years of a perfect track record is more than just a statistical anomaly; we have clearly taken what has always been a safe form of transportation and made it into a staggeringly safe mode of transportation. In an age where we are bombarded by fear media at every turn -- from the household menaces of local nightly news ("Something in your kitchen may be killing your children -- tune in at eleven for more!") to the endless scaremongering about international terrorism, you'd think there would be an appetite for news about how ordinary life just got a lot safer. Yes, if it bleeds it leads and all, but still, if you look at the history of aviation accidents, seven years with no fatalities is much more unlikely (and thus newsworthy) than a crash or two each year.

So it was heartening to see in my hotel copy of USAToday that the latest good news -- zero fatalities on any US commercial aircraft in the past two years, a first in our jet age history -- managed to get on the front page. My favorite quote was this:

[MIT Professor Arnold] Barnett calculates that it's more likely for a young child to be elected president in his or her lifetime than to die on a single jet flight in the USA or in similar industrial nations in Europe, Canada or Japan.

Those of you still suffering from a fear of flying might think about those odds next time you hit a little turbulence. And for the rest of us, let's just savor a little good news about the modern world for once...


  1. I think it’s vanishingly unlikely for a young child to be elected President in anyone’s lifetime, since the minimum age is 35. Also, if s/he is unlikely to die on a single jet flight, think how much MORE unlikely s/he is to die on MULTIPLE jet flights.

    exit amid rain of rotten fruit

  2. in writing this did you come across any reasons for the clean track record? is it smarter planes or is this really a freak anomaly and as #3 said, we really are very “due”

  3. “American 587 was the last fatal crash on U.S. shores involving a full-size jetliner”

    That’s a pretty serious list of qualifiers that conveniently omits the crash of Chalk’s Ocean Airways Flight 101 in 2005, just outside Miami Bay.

    What’s the point of this blurb, anyway? You suggest flying is safer now, but neglect to suggest a cause. Are we meant to assume we can thank increased regulation since 2001 for this increased safety?

    The vast majority of airline-related deaths are accidental. Changes in the airline industry since 2001 have been largely focused on preventing people from *intentionally* causing death, and have done little to address *accidents*.

    So, tell me, “why” are we “safer than we used to be”? Is there some reason accidental deaths are down, or is this just a lucky streak?

  4. My guess is that the safety factor in the tech continues to improve, perhaps the rate of improvement is even accelerating.
    We are only 100 years past the first flight, we are gonna get better and better at this, it stands to reason.
    In any event, hurrah for the engineers!

  5. You could argue there’s another interesting fact here, too: that it wasn’t bad design or unknown factors that have led to the majority of fatal air accidents in the last couple of decades.

    With a few exceptions, most of these events were from information that was known and not acted upon, from jackscrew problems to high temperatures that could cause fuel fires in tanks to overworked staff dealing with runways.

    So given that human error, not mechanical factors beyond prediction, were involved, it’s even more remarkable that behavior has continued to allow the level of vigilance that prevents accidents.

    Especially when you find out how the airlines were messing with the FAA and avoiding dealing with a bunch of maintenance issues and cracks a few years ago.

  6. We were in NYC when that flight went down and due to leave by air several days later. We didn’t have the warm and fuzzys.
    Technology aside many disasters result from stupidity. One NY bound flight went down because air traffic control had it doing circles as it ran out of fuel.
    A flight out of Chicago went down because they’d been changing engines using a forklift and damaged the mounts and the engine dropped off the plane.
    The flight in question was in the air turbulence created by the flight that took off just before.
    High tech will not resolve those kinds of problems.
    I vote that we’re running on dumb luck just like Wall Street was.

  7. exit amid rain of rotten fruit

    I see you’ve let the bear go. Economic downturn forces cutbacks in comedy staff?

  8. If you follow some of the discussion of FAA’s labor problems (a lot of experienced air traffic controllers have retired rather than live under FAA’s imposed work rules, put in place by Marion Blakey), your confidence may not be quite as high. Is the approach controller handling your flight experienced, or a trainee supervised by another controller, and either way, has he been on mandatory overtime and 6-day weeks for months? Did he get enough sleep last night or is he on a quick turnaround?

  9. SWORM – aside from cancer and heart disease, you’re more likely to die in a car crash than just about anything else.

  10. @ #7

    From Wiki: “The plane was a Grumman G-73T Turbine Mallard manufactured in 1947.”

    I’d rather fly in ANYTHING instead of drive the freeways.

  11. Arkizzle, no, but like most functions of the gay community, hot pursuit* of the wicked is handled by volunteers, and the bear was off at IML.

    *Not to be confused with In Hot Pursuit, which is a porn movie starring Jeff Stryker.

  12. @Merreborn: there’s also Comair Flight 5191 which crashed on August 27, 2006. 49 of the 50 passengers aboard the CRJ-100 died but apparently a 50-seat plan isn’t “full size”.

  13. @andrewm

    What plane is “full size” anymore? Airlines should just rip out all the seats, install subway hang-on straps and get it over with.

  14. Working at Boeing as a structural engineer here in Seattle has taught me the almost insane lengths we go to to make planes safe. Thanks for the props!

    When Chinese planes start coming out we’ll see.

  15. There is a very good reason why there are fewer fatalities.
    Read the book Outliers by Macolm Gladstone. The reason is that airplane accidents happen when serveral things go wrong at the same time or in a series. Three four five or seven or nine things often have gone wrong before the accident. So it is no accident, no pun intended, that very conscious efforts by airlines led to specific pilot and more specifically flight crew training that is responsible for fewer accidents.

    One airline showed an especially significant turn-around and that’s Korean Air. When they began training their co-pilots and first engineers to be more assertive with their captains and trained the captains to be more egalitarian with the rest of the crew they began their turn around from almost being de-certified from flying into the U.S. to getting an award for being one of the safest airlines around.

    Having more eyes and minds paying attention is a huge help, but if those eyes and minds are too timid about their concerns then it does little good.

    Gladstone does a better job than I, so find the book and read it.

    -Jeff Wegerson

  16. NCK, that’s hilarious.
    Dbarak, good eye.
    Anon and all working to keep us safe: keep on grinding, we appreciate it!

  17. “[MIT Professor Arnold] Barnett calculates that it’s more likely for a young child to be elected president in his or her lifetime than to die on a single jet flight in the USA or in similar industrial nations in Europe, Canada or Japan.”

    As a Canadian, all I can say is that I’m pretty sure my chances of being president are zero, unless he means president of Canada, which position I will create after the coup. Of course I won’t hold the position in that case either, as it will be second in rank to the position of Supreme Dictator for Life, which will be my title.

    So as for me, chances of being in a plane crash are probably still higher than my being president.

    I’m just saying.

  18. What happens to the figures if you state them in terms of accidents per some consistent number of airplane-miles flown? Or number of trips?

  19. Partial response to Merreborn and others:

    Yes, regulation is largely responsible. Almost all accidents occur on takeoff or landing, and almost all of those used to be caused by microbursts. That hazard has all but vanished due to the FAA mandating the installation of Doppler radar just about everywhere. This buildout occured from about 1995 to about 2001.

  20. Does anybody else have a problem with the president stat? I mean there has only been 43 Presidents. If a kid lived to be 100 and there were no incumbents there would be 25 presidents. Why is he more likely to be one of the 25 than the thousands more that will be killed in plane accidents. Is his last name Kennedy or something?

  21. And American 587 was a deluded copilot who managed to rip the rudder right off the aircraft.

    I’m STILL pissed off about that debacle.

  22. Thank you #18. That is the first thought that popped into my head. My biggest problem with this is that that “accident” should have been a massive black eye on this country’s commercial aviation safety track record. Also, I’m not important enough to need to fly on a “full-sized” plane very often, and I think the majority of the flying public would agree with me.

  23. flying itself isn’t the issue for me. it’s the TSA security circus nightmare. knowing me, i would wear the wrong t-shirt, or make an off-hand comment about how “the trailer park boys” are the ‘bomb’. even more likely is that they would do something absurdly stupid on someone else in line, i would make a comment about it(or even worse, DO something about it), strictly on instinct, and that would be it for 3-5 years. and I DO FEAR PRISON. well, let’s say that i respect the hell out of it, and never wish to hang out there. no, thank u.

  24. I don’t mean to nitpick, really, but I think that the airline safety rate may be a bit irrational, economically speaking.
    So, I’m assuming there is an increasing marginal cost to safety. The difference between 98% safe and 99% safe is more expensive than the difference between 97 and 98% for any particular piece of travel infrastructure (or any other use of public funds, I guess). We dump tons of money into airplane safety, to get up to that 100% safety rating, when other areas of our infrastructure could be improved to save more lives for the same public investment. I admit this view is sort of a heartless numbers game, and it ignores the public psychology of airplane travel… but if this level of airplane safety really costs that much to maintain, then maybe bridge repair would be a better avenue for those public funds.

  25. I’d noticed the lack of air accidents since 911, but wasn’t aware of Flight 587. I DO recall the American Airlines plane that went down near L.A. because the mechanics *failed to grease the jackscrew* … and 88 people died.

    Good news is welcome … *any* good news. I think it’s news that, since we’ve had the internet, the quality and depth of discussion and awareness on some public forums has noticeably increased. Also, the election of Obama evidenced some political acuity in the young for the first time since the 60s. That’s *very* good news. Because it’s time for the corrupt geezers to retire.

  26. That article was just plain responsible. If we’re not constantly scared then how can we be controlled effectively? It’s for our own protection, panic!

    For some reason that just reminded me of the Mitchell And Webb sketch of the two news presenters reporting on how everything is fine. Literally nothing going wrong. Everything’s okay. I laughed my ass off when they started reading the newspaper headlines – “And the Daily Mail leads with ‘Everything Fine. Fear It! Fear It!'”

  27. I like the bit about the kids being more likely to become president. I just don’t understand why the little girls have a much smaller chance of dying on an individual flight than the boys.

  28. The new Malcom Gladwell book “Outliers” over this exact thing. Pretty interesting also how Korean airlines turned around during the same period of time.

  29. Obviously our son and the other 48 people on Flight 5191 out of Lexington Kentucky in August of 2006 don’t really matter. Are you saying 49 people dying in a plane crash don’t count?????

  30. And still the outgoing President says the biggest risk for the incoming President is ‘an attack on the homeland’ – a phrase deliberately chosen to evoke memories of 9/11…

  31. #21:Working at Boeing as a structural engineer here in Seattle has taught me the almost insane lengths we go to to make planes safe.

    Working at Boeing as a structural engineer here in Seattle, and as a McDonnell Douglas structural engineer at Long Beach before that, has taught me that while we and the FAA do everything we can to make planes safe, the airlines do everything they can to cut corners. In the US, there are very few corners they can cut legally, and even fewer corners they can cut not-quite-legally and get away with it, so it’s really not something to worry about (as the statistics show). But there IS a constant (literally 24h a day) tug-of-war between the people saying “Inspect more often!” or “Replace that part!” or “Require triple-checking”, and the people saying “Can I postpone this inspection pretty please just this once” or “Just patch up that part, it’ll last a few more flights” or “Someone apparently checked it once so it’s okay”. It’s funny how comment #9 mentioned “avoiding dealing with a bunch of maintenance issues and cracks a few years ago”… No, it made the news a few years ago. It happens (to less significant extents) all the time.

    As for WHY flying is so much safer… that WAS all over the news not too long ago, when a report was released (was it by the FAA or the NTSB?) about this. Let me see if I can Google it…

  32. @30:

    I think the statistic works because the vast majority of passengers on planes are *not* small children. Thus it’s not out of the realm of possibility that there will be more US Presidents over the long term than small children killed in plane crashes.

  33. As for the elected-president statistic: There are almost 1 billion passengers in US flights per year. Between the one or two small-airliner accidents per year and the one big-airliner accident every few year, say that on average some dozens of passengers die per year, out of that almost-one-billion. That means that when you get on a flight, the chance of you not surviving it is something like one in some tens of millions (“some tens of millions” times “some dozens” equaling “almost one billion”). Now, each time an election comes around, how many people are eligible to become president? If it’s “some tens of millions”, then the odds are certainly comparable to dying in any one particular flight. But I think it’s more like “over one hundred million”. So the odds of dying in a particular flight are probably less than the odds of becoming president, but they’re within one order of magnitude or so, according to my quick estimate here. And if you TRY to become president, you are more likely to succeed than you are of dying in any one particular flight, since the number of people who try to become president is far smaller than the number of people who are theoretically eligible.

  34. Um…people die on US airlines all the time. However in order to keep people from panicking and to record proper place of death it’s not reported until they land, and they don’t acknowledge it until all the passengers are off the plane.

    My aunt’s a flight attendant.

    As for accidents…while there are not many planes that tend to fall out of the sky…it does happen…though the major US carriers have been lucky…it’s only been a month since a Continental 737 burst into flames during take off…in Denver.

    Safe…yeah, more inconvenient, stupid and still has problems and people still die…yes.

    Bring back trains for domestic transport please.

  35. Oh if mean just terrorist related…okay…except there doesn’t seem to be a lot of people who’ve actually tried since the shoe bomber.

  36. #30 heckdogg … If a kid lived to be 100 and there were no incumbents there would be 25 presidents. Why is he more likely to be one of the 25 than the thousands more that will be killed in plane accidents …

    How our good professor arrives at this conclusion is easily explained.

    It’s been 7 years since the last fatal crash of a full-sized plane in the US (allegedly), and the average term of US presidents are somewhat less than 7 years (considering those serving single 4 year terms, and those who do not complete their terms, as well as those who serve the full 8 year two-terms). Therefore the frequency of plane fatal plane crashes are lower than new presidents being elected. Therefore a child will have a greater chance of being elected president.

    I sure hope [MIT Professor Arnold] Barnett is not a professor in maths.

  37. If you think it’s good news that a kid’s more likely to become President than die in a plane crash… I wouldn’t wish either fate on a child I liked, and there are a lot of people who’d make better crash victims than Presidents.

  38. The odds are fairly easy to figure out, but not when you’re dealing with unknowns such as crazy humans. History has shown us that entire cultures can go a little nuts. All we need is a few more devoted nuts per year that want to blow up a few planes and then we’ll see how the odds change. Since so many fewer people will be flying, the chance of a death by aircraft will go up, and up…until we just won’t fly any more. Geez, I do hope not. But when you see what happens when the wrong people get hold of wrong ideas, things can really turn to crap.

  39. Way to jinx them, Steve.

    How about tomorrow you write about how great it is that an asteroid hasn’t hit the Earth?

  40. Steve! This is an extremely ominous start to your guest-blogging! The plane crashed directly into the Hudson river, close to the Battleship Intrepid.

    Next, could you predict that the Eagles are going to win the Superbowl!?

  41. And the “streak” is over.

    US Airways Flight 1549 an Airbus A320. 146 aboard, many survivors.

    That seems to meet the criteria for “major” crash as set out by the article. Major jet (A320’s are a 737 replacement), not a ground accident like Denver, large number of passengers.

    Good job by the pilots to get this plane down semi-safely. Mechanical failure or bird strike.

  42. CNN is currently reporting that everyone on the USAir plane was able to escape alive. So, still not a fatal crash.

  43. jinx. seriously though. it was the first thing that crossed my mind when i clicked with what the post was about.

    superstitious much?


  44. Jinxed it – can you now write something about how long its been since George Bush got punched in the face.

  45. And here I read this article this morning thinking, “Wow, we’re not any safer, we’re just due.” Statistical anomalies always balance out, that’s why they’re called anomalies. :D

  46. To be fair to Steve – it looks like it wasn’t so much a crash as an emergency water landing, and early reports are saying everyone got out.

  47. Not ironic yet! The article is about air traffic fatalities. Not crashes.

    The Airbus in the Hudson doesn’t break the streak if no one died. From the looks of things the pilot was to lay the play down nice and easy and everyone had time to escape.

  48. How shallow is the Hudson River anyway? People are standing on the wing of the plane and look like the top of the wing is only a foot below the surface.


  49. Well Steven you’ll always have an interesting story to tell about your first post on Boing Boing. Freaky.

  50. …Ignore the Forum Trolls, Steve – you’ll figure out who they are, so it should be easy even if Teresa doesn’t disemvowell them. Just practice safe blogging by using a lubricated spel chekkqur with the funny ridges on them, say exactly what’s on your mind, and above all else enjoy the ride even if one of the speed bumps has “Takuan Wuz Here!” spraypainted on it :-) :-) ;-) :-) :-)

  51. Two years and one day, it looks like.

    Although it looks like no one was killed in today’s major crash.

  52. Sounds like the pilot was the hero — a crippled plane, a heavily populated area, and a large body of water…and he set it down in a shallow part of the river, and it appears that no one died — or was even seriously injured today.

    now THAT is playing the odds.

    (but yeah…the minute I heard the news, I thought of this post….gives me a little bit of a twinge.)

    (unrelated — my ReCaptcha phrase? Keller sight. That’s pretty tasteless.)

  53. Doesn’t even look like there were serious injuries around, thankfully.

    Seems to be a controlled water landing, according to what’s on TimesOnline, birds killed a couple of the engines.

    Doesn’t sound like a crash, more like a good pilot.

  54. …birds killed a couple of the engines…

    When you only have two, losing “a couple” calls for a little less nonchalance. It’s not a B-52…

  55. To quote the Woody Allen play Don’t Drink the Water:

    “Be thankful nobody died. Wonderful, we’re thinking about making that our new slogan.”

  56. This is an interesting coincidence! Happy to know everyone’s safe. Steve, I would be curious to know what factors caused that anecdote you mentioned (that led you to write this story) to come into your mind yesterday, rather than on some other random day. Isn’t this what Carl Jung called a synchronicity?

  57. The wonderful news that no one die, if anything, reinforces the point of the original post.
    But it is an axiom of journalism not to tempt fate in this way. Cartoonists, in particular, live in terror that some apparently innocuous reference will the next morning look as if it was devised in the worst possible taste.


    “How shallow is the Hudson River anyway?”

    In the 50+ foot range, based on a comparison of news maps and a nautical chart layer in Google Earth.

    So, not very shallow.

  59. Unaware of the crash, I was thinking about plane crashes while this happened today, not a mile away from my apartment, because I read this piece last night.

  60. If you want to thank someone for reduced accident rates, thank your local actuary. And offer them a job, too, because AIG stopped hiring after NOAA admitted that greenhouse gases cause increased storm strength during the tail end of the 2004-2008 hurricane seasons.

  61. Whats greater? Chances of me hiiting the big one on the lottery or dying in a plane crash? I swear theres a tie-in promotion for either/and/or planes lottery tickets somewhere in there.

  62. Well, it’s been a month since this post. Last night’s news was about some landing gear collapsing as a plane landed in London, and there was also more in-depth reporting about the wing ice that seems to have been responsible for the crash earlier this week, outside Buffalo, NY, that killed, I think, 51 people. I just thought I’d check here, and on Stephen’s follow-up post, to see if any conversation was getting re-kindled as a result.

    Still seems like the record he mentions, regarding seven years without a “fatal crash on U.S. shores involving a full-size jetliner”, remains intact, unless the turbo-prop outside Buffalo is considered “full-size”; but the record USAToday was reporting on, of “zero fatalities on any US commercial aircraft in the past two years” appears to have reached an end point.

    I guess the relative dearth of plane crash news in the past seven years makes it seem all the more like they’re just dropping from the sky, willy nilly, now–as though the laws have changed or something.

    I wonder if the death in this crash of the wife of a man who died in the World Trade Center attacks, along with this whole recent spate of aeronautical mishaps/disasters/miraculous aversions here, coincidentally, at the beginning of the new US presidential administration, will have any bearing on how Obama deals with (or speaks about dealing with) matters both TSA and ATC, in this period of economic stimulus spending allocation.

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