Frequent Flyers Don’t Worry

Loosen up, nail-biting, sedative popping frequent flyers. Travelling on scheduled United States airlines is safer than it ever has been, with no fatalities in 2002 and only one death in 32.6 million passenger departures in 2003, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, a quasi-independent agency that examines why planes crash and what happens when they do. And even if your plane does go down, the chances that you will walk away from the wreckage have improved sharply in recent years.
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“There hasn’t been a major crash – knock on wood – in nearly two years,” said Doug Wills, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group of 24 airlines. In fact, in the last five years, the number of commercial airline accidents worldwide has dropped from 1.19 to 0.8 per million departures, according to statistics compiled by Boeing.
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The last United States air disaster occurred in January 2003 when an Air Midwest Beech 1900 crashed during takeoff from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport in North Carolina because of unbalanced cargo. All 19 passengers and 2 crew members died.
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But in a more typical accident 134 of the 145 passengers and crew survived when an American Airlines MD-80 crashed in a thunderstorm at Little Rock, Arkansas, five years ago, said Tony Broderick, an aviation consultant and former safety official at the Federal Aviation Administration.
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“Air travellers tend to believe that if you’re in an accident, you’re not going to survive,” said Nora Marshall, chief of the safety board’s survival factors division of the Office of Aviation Safety, which analyses what causes injuries and fatalities. “That’s not true. In a study of 568 accidents between 1983 and 2000 involving scheduled passenger flights of US airlines, 95 percent of the passengers survived.” And living through a crash is not a ticket to everlasting trauma, either, according to a study done by the American Psychological Association in 1999. Over the long run, crash survivors who are willing to recount their experience (many are not) suffer less emotional distress and have greater self-esteem than travellers who have never been in an accident.
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One reason for the improving safety record is the increase training that crew members are getting in moving passengers efficiently out of a downed plane. JetBlue cabin attendants take a refresher course on crash procedures once a year on the anniversary of their employment, for example, working with a jet mockup at the airline’s headquarters in Queens, not far from La Guardia and Kennedy Airports.
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Aircraft are also getting more resistant to one of the leading causes of injury and death: fire and smoke. Under safety rules laid down in the late 1980’s, cabins in new aircraft and in older models that are being refurbished have to include fire-resistant seat cushions, escape path lighting to exits, fire extinguishers in galleys and smoke detectors in lavatories.
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Flyers often ask what the safest plane is. But an examination of air crashes does not provide an answer, aviation experts say. The statistical record partly depends on the life of the plane; the Boeing 777, for instance, has not had a major accident but has been in service for only 10 years. The Concorde, now retired, was a “safe” plane without any major accident from its debut in the 1970’s until the Air France crash at Charles de Gaulle Airport in 2000. What about 9/11? Hasn’t terrorism made flying more dangerous? Maybe so, but it has also resulted in the largest security crackdown in American aviation history. “By the time you reach your seat in an aircraft cabin, you’ve already gone through several layers of security,” Alison Duquette, an F.A.A. spokeswoman, said. “And there’s another layer on board – the armoured door to the cockput.”