Is Commercial Flight Safer Than Ever?

The crash of a Boeing 737 in Ethiopia prompted Donald Trump to call new airplanes less safe than old ones.
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Airplane crash debris.

People stand near collected debris at the crash site of an Ethiopia Airlines flight on March 11th, 2019.

Following a fatal Boing 737 crash in Ethiopia last Sunday that killed all 157 people on board a number of prominent politicians are asking questions about the state of airplane safety. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump tweeted that "airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly" and that an aircraft model that is "old and simpler is far better."

Trump's assertion in contradicted by data. According to research from the International Civil Aviation Organization, the rate of plane accidents is at an all-time low, with just 1.75 accidents per million departures in 2018—a decline of 4.7 accidents per million over the preceding 10 years. Similar data from the Aviation Safety Network has shown a steady decline in the rate of fatal airline accidents per million flights since 1977. However, data on the number of accidents per million over the last decade does not directly correlate with the number of airplane-accident fatalities, as certain crashes can create more fatalities than others.

Aviation consultancy To70 reported that 2017 was a record year for airplane safety in terms of fatalities, though there were still a significant number of non-fatal accidents. In 2018, however, there was a large spike in airplane-accident fatalities. While most incidents recorded by the Aviation Safety Network that year did not kill anyone on board, there were three accidents that together accounted for a majority of deaths. One of these was the crash of another Boeing 737 Max 8: Lion Air flight 610 in Indonesia in October. It is unusual for two planes of the same exact model to result in such fatal crashes in such a short time frame, prompting international groundings of the model and general concern over its safety.

Still, the general trend of fewer and fewer accidents indicates that commercial planes are, for the most part, safer than they once were.

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