Odds of being a terrorism victim on a flight


Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com collected the data for this handsome infographic designed by Jesus Diaz of Gizmodo. It shows your odds of becoming an airborne victim of terrorism. Maybe the new TSA rules will decrease the odds of being a terrorism victim from 1 in 10,408,947 to 1 in 10,408,948. Let's hope so!

The True Odds of Airborne Terror Chart


  1. The odds of winning a lottery are worse than that, and people still buy lottery tickets, too.

    Humans are wired to see the big dramatic deaths more easily than the mediocre, everyday deaths. Automobile accidents and alcohol kill far more people than terrorism, and yet we don’t make those illegal or even take much action to blunt their effects.

    And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to drink my vodka, but not go driving in the rain.

  2. What a particularly ugly sample of an infographic.

    I was expecting something in the lines of bar or pie graphs — number of successful flights vs number of flights fatally downed by terrorists. That would get the message across.

  3. Not to be negative, but that is the most confusing, distracting info-graphic I’ve ever seen.

    I’m sure the data is spot on, but if the designer wants to tell a story, there are much better visual formats for doing that.

    After reading it twice, all I can remember is that ancient Egyptians were electrocuted on their way to the planet Neptune… or something.


  4. Agreed with netsharc and seanpatgallagher.

    Cool data, but a “handsome” infographic? It reads like a Tufte essay on how not to present information.

  5. A more chilling infographic would describe the amount of time wasted by TSA procedures, amount of time law-abiding travelers have been imprisoned in grounded planes, denied access to the bathroom, detained for no reason, denied permission to enter the country, etc, and the volume of liquid and other harmless contraband confiscated at checkpoints.

    And then we can compare how much longer each September 11 victim would have lived if they had survived to an average age of 75.

    1. And perhaps also the increase in airport restaurant sales from food and drink no longer being allowed through security… I get the feeling that airports aren’t exactly disappointed about some of the restrictions.

  6. Only 6 terrorist attacks? What about all those terrorist attacks that bush/cheney stopped but couldn’t tell us about?

    Seriously though, I think someone forgot to show the TSA these numbers.

  7. i don’t disagree with the sentiment, but using miles flown is irrelevant and misleading. it’s not as if the plane could be taken down more than once per flight and so it seems much more logical to leave it at attacks per flight. that number is convincing enough, there’s no need to exaggerate the statistic with an irrelevant conversion.

  8. I’m sure the data is spot on

    Hmm. Not so sure. NOAA (http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/medical.htm) says the odds of being struck (NOT killed) in a single year is 1/500,000 if you include the estimated number of unreported injuries. The kill-rate for lightning in the USA (NOT the entire world) is apparently 60 per annum or about 1 in 5 million odds.

    Is the claimed flight data for just US or global? Is it lifetime risk – is so for what assumed length of life?

    This is a poorly displayed mishmash of poorly collated data. D-. Must do better.

  9. I agree with rAMPANTiDIOCY. Seems like endymion, netsharc and seanpatgallagher should get together and make a better version.

    My contribution to the effort is pointing this out. You’re welcome!

  10. This totally misunderstands the politics. As if some member of the administration or some lawmaker could ever say something akin to “we’re prepared to accept one death per 7 million passengers.”

    Politicians–this is of course regardless of party–by nature will not leave themselves open to the return body blow that would come in the form of “one death is too many!”

    And really, how do you argue with that?

    The other thing is that the 3100 years since the fall of Egypt thing is misguided and misleading. Passenger hours do mean something, but they cannot be compared with the way iin which history flows. Clearly from their data there have been 6 terrorist acts in the 10 years studied. There’s no 3100 about it.

    There surely is a better way to do things (and I have some ideas about it too, but let’s not go there). Things like this, however, are not going to help effect any kind of change.

    Speaking as a rational and numerate person who nonetheless battles his fear of flying, I don’t think that it is widespread innumeracy which can be blamed for that state of affairs, either.

  11. Thanks to the TSA’s responses to terrorist attacks, your chance of becoming a victim of terrorism is 1 in 1.

    1. Absolutely. If you’ve flown at all, you’re a victim of terrorism. Particularly if you’ve flown in the last decade.

      In that time, I’ve been shuffled through countless checkpoints, yelled at because instructions weren’t clear (and I ended up where I was not allowed), patted down, my belongings strewn all over a bench, made to take my shoes off, yelled at because when asked to present “ID” in the US, they really meant “passport” and not “driver’s license from another country”, been forced to ditch water, made to throw away an unopened jar of French mustard in Thailand, made to sit in a stationary plane without being allowed to go to the bathroom.

      Yeah, we’re all victims of terrorism (most of us not casualties, thankfully). Terrorists win.

  12. If the collective 69bn miles are passenger miles wouldn’t you then also have to divide the number by the number of passengers affected by terrorist incidents? That would seem to bring the 11bn result a lot lower. Possibly three orders of magnitude lower.

  13. I was just thinking about this this morning as they were talking about the underpants bomber. They kept going on and on about how the government had to protect the citizens against this kind of danger.

    Wait a minute. A plane has a few hundred people on it. Even with a fraction of the security they have now, say they would lose a plane or two a year.

    We lose more than 800 people a WEEK to automobile accidents, and the majority of them are caused by morons doing idiotic things behind the wheel, alcohol, or raging drivers. Why is the government not spending billions of dollars to fix THAT problem? It’s > 100 (actually way more than that) times more likely to kill any given citizen. Drunken ragers with poor driving skills behind the wheel of an SUV scare me WAY more than all the terrorists in the world do, but the government does squat-all about that, doesn’t even talk about it really.

  14. Couldn’t those same figures be used to support the argument that the airport security policies are doing a good job?

    1. In the words of Chief Justice Roberts:

      “Well, that’s like the old — you know, it’s the elephant whistle. You know, I have this whistle to keep away the elephants. You know, well, that’s silly. Well, there are no elephants, so it must work.”

      Just because policies exist, doesn’t mean they actually work.

  15. Or to put it another way, the chances of it happening to someone else rather than you are 10,408,946:1

    Ten million times more likely to be someone elses problem? Wow, thats foreign policy in a nutshell.

  16. I don’t believe past occurrences are an indicator of future odds of airline terrorism. And should not be compared to something that is much more like a random event–lightning strikes.

  17. “Couldn’t those same figures be used to support the argument that the airport security policies are doing a good job?”

    According to Bruce Schneier, the only security procedures that are actually making a difference are the invisible ones that passengers never see anyway.

  18. that bad?

    maybe though it’s everyone vamping themselves up to the fear point with phrases like ‘noone in 7 billion dies today’ with respect to airline terrorism that is helping to reinforce the problem.

    @infographic lol… nothing like a good highloling lol that puts chickenlittling in perspective.

    of course, my opinion is suspect because i am chief conspirator in a culture plot to destroy network television through revealing how ridiculous a medium of exchange it is by influencing one person at time. so…
    if people stopped being led by the nose by the stupid things wouldn’t some of this evaporate.

  19. repost
    I reread my post and realized I came off way more caustic and less flippant than I usually would have liked to.
    @Rastronomical et al. i totally see where the graphic was made to be informative in qualitative way. I think maybe they were going for visual punch as opposed to hard facts.

  20. Um, good example of “firm grasp of the obvious” maybe? Fear is many things but very rarely rational.

    Did you read the one about the woman who lost her husband on a 9/11 flight only to die in a plane crash herself in Buffalo some years later? I mean, what are the odds?

    #1 u r funny

  21. I agree that we in the USA have let irrational fear control our lives to an unhealthy extent, but this infographic completely ignores the thousands of people on the ground who were killed in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

    It doesn’t meaningfully change the statistics, which makes it all the more foolish to cherry-pick numbers so blatantly.

  22. I’d like to see a statistical mathematician do this over, because this seems flawed and tendentious.

  23. this fails on so many levels…

    reduce it to the amount of american flights, and then give me a number. nobodys blowing up a plane between africa and australia…

  24. I like this and I agree with it.

    The “Quality of life” we lose even from the time lost putting up with the sickening regulations and pathetic but vicious guards is far more damaging than the potential for dying in an attack.

    Matter of fact, look at the passengers and add that extra hour these screenings take, if not 3 hours… That’s how many human lives lost (collectively) by wasting of time?

  25. There is a lot (two words, not one) of extenuating circumstances that the graphic doesn’t address. Every traveler travels for reasons of their own, to places of their own choosing. To be brief, the Chaos Factor is very much in play, meaning the odds can go haywire at any time.
    For instance: if you only fly to Sheboygan every other year to visit Great Aunt Millie, on differing days — no, it’s likely that this [X] traveler won’t be a victim of terrorism. This traveler isn’t following a regular pattern.
    Taking another example: A traveler regularly flies from New York City to France, which has a large Muslim population that is radicalized enough to practice honour killing often enough to be worrisome. The chances of one of those radicalized Muslims who are okay with killing, making contact with that traveler, are still pretty stretchy but definitely *not* astronomical. The odds reduce from one in several tens of billions to one in several hundred thousands in this scenario.
    Another example: A traveler flies every day between PDX to SFO because they survived the Dot-Com Bust and are an officer of a thriving tech company. San Francisco was a contemplated target for 9/11 and its bridges and skyline are still vulnerable because there are no military bases within an hour’s travel time (thank you, Bill Clinton). SF’s trauma response setup is good, but a 9/11 style attack would overwhelm it.
    Given that terrorists tend to follow the serial murderers’ creed of never striking the same way twice, the above-mentioned dot-com CEO would be a.) a high target and b.) very patterned. What are the odds here? They probably drop to one in a few thousand of him being a victim of terrorism.

  26. How about adding the statistics of death caused by airline accidents that were not terrorist-related?

    My guess is:

    Number of safe person/miles >> number of accidental deaths/mile > number of terror-related deaths/mile

    Or,to summarize, “The chances of dying on an airline flight are extremely low, and probably due to accident, not terrorism”. There, that should reassure everyone.

  27. As far as infographics go, I think this one may have been more effective as a simple list of figures. Infographics usually add meaning to the information by presenting it visually. Putting Nefertiti’s bust next to the word “Egypt” doesn’t do that.

    Only loosely related: I am certain by now that flying is by far the safest way to travel, and even though I never think twice about driving anywhere, I am a little more certain with each flight I’m on that THIS is the one that will kill me. Aren’t we a funny animal?

  28. According to Bruce Schneier, the only security procedures that are actually making a difference are the invisible ones that passengers never see anyway.

    A graphic explaining which procedures work and which don’t would make more of a point than this one. The rarity of a catastrophic event doesn’t reduce the importance of doing whatever you can to effectively prevent it if you can.

  29. Yes, there is a higher chance of getting into a car accident than being in a terrorist incident but it doesn’t benefit the government to make you afraid of riding in cars. However, it DOES benefit the government to make you afraid of terrorists.

  30. What is the probability of finding a comment three sentences long that does not have at least one grammatical error? It is safer to ride airplanes.

  31. It would be useful to include in any comparison like this the likelihood of dying in an aviation-related incident not connected to terrorism. In doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations, I’m led to believe that this, despite still being extremely low, is at least an order of magnitude higher than the chance of dying in a terrorism-related incidents: I think there’s been somewhere on the order of 7500 deaths due to incidents other than terrorist attacks during the same period.

    Increased funding and more restrictive procedures for aviation safety rather than aviation security would probably save far more lives.

  32. I pity the future space companies that will offer flights to Neptune and back; their insurance premiums will surely cost astronomical figures :-)
    Also, good luck getting customers with those odds :-)

  33. One angle not in this data is that the number is comparing an accident with being the target of an intended malicious act.

    Perhaps the better comparison is to being the victim of other acts, such as murder.

  34. I like this graphic because it’s funny and stuff. I have considered posting it at my Army unit, for context. However, the numbers of terrorist attacks they cite are erroneous.

    I can, off the top of my head, think of many more successful and unsuccessful terrorist attacks against air traffic:
    1. 4 on 9/11
    2. Underpants bomber
    3. Shoe bomber
    4. Lockerbie, Scotland
    5. That SAM attack against the israeli airliner in Egypt
    6. The waves of hijackings in the 70s and 80s

    HItting up the U.S. department of state website for a few minutes indicates more.

    I sympathize with the message of this infographic, but think that it is undercut by not accurately reporting the data.

  35. i liked the way they presented the data. it was a fun creative way, and it deffinately got the point across better than any stupid bar of pie graph

  36. Body scanners might improve our odds from 1/16,000,000 to maybe 1/20,000,000, maybe not. Checkpoints will continue to miss things as they always have. Federal Red teams get 60% of their contraband through the checkpoints as it is. I think we are safe enough (2009 levels), that they need to concentrate on things like baggage screening (only 40-60% as of now). Like Rep Chaffitz (UT) said: Does strip-searching my mother or 8 year old daughter make flying safer?

    It’s so important to keep reminding people that the government’s most important priority is to protect our freedoms, not Keep Us Safe(tm). Over the years many thousands of Americans have given their lives to secure those freedoms, and to simply hand them over now in exchange for a dubious promise to Keep Us Safe(tm) is a disgusting insult to their sacrifice.

  37. So what can we DO?!
    Please organize something, We are with you and will do anything to end this evil, cynical policy!

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