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.

There are clear benefits to this process, safer air travel chief among them. But the unintended consequences also suggest that exporting American regulations around the world could cost more lives than it saves. The macabre but exhaustive website put the odds of being killed on a single airline flight at about one in 4.7 million across 78 major world airlines; among the airlines with the worst safety records, the odds rise to one in 2 million. In the middle of the last decade, the fatal crash rate for Kenya Airways was about three in 1 million. For Ethiopian Airlines, it was four in 1 million. That’s higher than that of U.S. carriers such as American Airlines (0.6 fatal crashes per 1 million flights) or United (0.5 per million)—but it still suggests flying is safe, and that the gap between poor and rich countries is small.

That’s not true for driving. While it’s widely known that flying is statistically safer than driving, just how much safer varies from country to country. Data from the World Health Organization and the World Bank suggest that, in the U.S., there are 1.4 fatalities per year for every 10,000 cars on the road. In Malaysia, there are seven; in Kenya, 87—more than 60 times the rate in the U.S., compared with about a fivefold gap in air safety. Given how often people drive, and how indispensable car travel is in most countries, the gap in developing countries’ road safety records is far more troubling than their air safety records are impressive.

Sadly, this is not new news. Twenty years ago, a team of U.S. public health officials put together a collection of 500 life-saving interventions and their estimated cost per year of life saved. They estimated smoke detectors in airplane lavatories cost $30,000 per life-year saved and emergency signs $54,400 per life-year. Since then, the regulations have gotten more expensive: All planes must now carry automated external defibrillators (if they want to land in the U.S., at least), at a cost of almost $100,000 per life-year saved. The post-9/11 airport security measures are more expensive and yield even less benefit.

Compared with less than $100 per life-year for mandatory seat belts and child restraints, or $7,000 per life-year for air bags, air safety regulations were pricey, even 20 years ago. Juxtaposed with the costs of health interventions in developing countries, the differences are stark. The cost per year of life saved for vaccination programs can be as low as $7, and still 17 percent of Kenyan kids don’t get basic vaccines.

Of course, if Kenya Airways wasn’t spending the money putting defibrillators in its jets that fly to the U.S., it probably wouldn’t use the savings to fund a vaccination program. But it might lower the cost of travel to and from Kenya, which would enable more people to travel, in turn increasing all the benefits that travel can bring—tourism dollars, trade, and investment. As it is, the international regulations mean lower profits for Kenya Airways and less tax revenue for the Kenyan government—which really might spend some of that on vaccinations.

The divide between the priorities of the developed and developing worlds is not limited to safety standards, of course. By virtue of our overall high standard of living, rich countries have moved on from basic needs (like vaccinations) to what some might consider luxuries. Developed nations can afford to spend thousands or millions of dollars to avoid a single death—even if it’s of a panda rather than a human. Sadly, human people regularly die from far cheaper problems in poorer parts of the world.

When it comes to regulation primarily designed to protect domestic consumers, it may be too much to ask the U.S. government to strongly consider the impact of its decisions on consumers in the rest of the world, but it would be helpful. And it’s worth repeating that sometimes the impact is likely to be positive. Even in the case of airline safety regulations, if they make the kind of publicity Malaysia has suffered over the last fortnight a little less likely, even some low-income governments might consider them worth the price.