Boeing’s issues notwithstanding, the latest commercial air traffic safety data paint an unequivocal picture of increasing flight safety since the 1970s. In 2018, for instance, out of 37.8 million global commercial airline departures, 15 ended in a fatal accident, for a rate of 0.39 fatal accidents per million flights, according to the Aviation Safety Network, an independent initiative that monitors trends in airline safety statistics.
When you take off on a commercial flight anywhere in the world, in other words, there’s less than a 1 in 1 million chance that the flight will end in a fatal crash. Back in the early 1970s, the odds of that happening were about 1 in 160,000.
“If the accident rate had remained the same as ten years ago, there would have been 39 fatal accidents last year," said Aviation Safety Network CEO Harro Ranter in a statement in January. “At the accident rate of the year 2000, there would have been even 64 fatal accidents. This shows the enormous progress in terms of safety in the past two decades.”
Experts say that much of the increase in global flight safety can be attributed to technological advances, such as collision avoidance systems. Regulation has also played a role: in recent years, for instance, federal regulators boosted training and mandatory rest requirements for commercial pilots.
Looking only at the United States, there hasn’t been a fatal commercial airline crash in a decade. The last one happened in February 2009, when a Continental jet crashed in Buffalo, New York, killing 50 people. In 2017, the latest year for which complete data is available from the National Transportation Safety Board, there were 29 non-fatal accidents across a total of 9.1 million flights — a rate of 0.3 accidents per 100,000 departures. or roughly 3 in 1 million.
There has been at least one fatality aboard a U.S. plane since 2009, however. In 2018, Southwest passenger Jennifer Riordan was killed when an engine failed, sending shrapnel into the window she was seated next to. The plane made an emergency landing shortly thereafter.
But paradoxically, incidents like this one and the recent 737 Max 8 crashes may now stand out more when they do happen, simply because they’ve become less common.