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Is Air Travel Too Safe?

Is Air Travel Too Safe?
Photograph by David Ryle

The search for answers around the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 continues to generate an outsize amount of attention for an airplane tragedy—a subject that already commands a disproportionate level of public concern. This has been true for decades: A mid-1990s analysis of New York Times front-page stories found that there were 1,382 stories per 10,000 U.S. deaths involving commercial jets. (For car accidents, it was less than one story per 10,000 deaths.) The obsession with airline crashes in part reflects their rarity, even on the benighted Malaysia Airlines. According to data up to the middle of last decade, Malaysia’s flag carrier had suffered two fatal crashes in 1.8 million flights—an accident rate better than Air France, KLM, or Swissair at the time.

The incredibly impressive safety record of air travel worldwide is a testament to the success of an unheralded American export: our regulations governing aircraft and airport safety. To land in the U.S., a plane and the airport where the flight originated have to meet Federal Aviation Administration standards. This means conforming to guidelines about the weight of cockpit doors, the quality of the exit lighting, and the number of defibrillators on board, among other things. Ditto for the European Union, and both the EU and the U.S. regularly ban airlines from flying into their jurisdictions if their home authorities don’t meet the standards.