In a country that seems more divided than ever, Americans remain united on one subject: Air travel sucks. From the ever-shrinking legroom to the ever-growing list of fees for basic amenities, it’s a deeply unpleasant experience. But another reason we all despise air travel so much: fear.
About 40% of people have some level of anxiety about flying, and about 2.5% of people have a clinical phobia. It’s easy to see why: Flying is a form of travel that almost completely removes your agency. Not only are you at the mercy of airlines and their wonky booking practices, but once you’re in the air, there is basically nothing you can do to control your experience.
That said, there really is little reason to fear. Air travel may be expensive, uncomfortable, and often chaotic, but it’s also the least dangerous way to travel for a long list of reasons. Let’s walk through those reasons.
2021 was one of the safest years on record
First and foremost, the old cliche about air travel being the safest way to travel is absolutely true. For every billion passenger miles travelled by commercial aeroplane, only 0.07 people die. This sounds alarming until you learn that for every billion miles travelled in a car, 7.2 people die. In fact, more people die riding a bus than flying in a plane.
And believe it or not, last year was one of the safest years ever recorded. There were just four fatal air accidents in 2021, resulting in 81 deaths (down from five crashes and 299 deaths in 2020). That makes 2021 the safest year for air travel since 2017, when there was just one passenger jet accident. While any death in a plane crash is a tragedy, the fact is your chances of experiencing an accident, much less dying, are more remote than ever. In fact, 62 of the air travel deaths recorded in 2021 occurred when Sriwijaya Air flight SJ182 crashed into the sea in January 2021, a crash partially blamed on the age of the Boeing 737, which had seen 26 years of service.
The other fatalities in 2021 all involved small prop planes, not big commercial jets. And there were only 34 non-fatal accidents involving air travel in 2021, down from 35 in 2020. All in all, that makes the fatal accident rate for air travel last year a pretty reassuring one in 5.3 million, a huge improvement over 2020’s one in 3.7 million. And if you’re wondering what airline is the safest, that would be Air New Zealand.
Planes are tested extensively
Some of our collective fear of flying stems from a lack of faith in the quality of a plane’s manufacturing. Automobiles, home computers, and water heaters all break down regularly, after all — why should planes be any different?
The answer is simple: Planes are exhaustively tested before they’re sold to the airlines. Exhaustively. The list of tests a plane undergoes before it joins a fleet include:
- Wing bend tests, which can involve the wings being bent up to 90 degrees to ensure they can withstand shear and turbulence
- Ingestion tests for engines, which simulate water or birds being sucked into a jet engine
- Temperature extremity tests to ensure that the plane can work through both incredible cold and intense heat
- Virtual systems tests to ensure that the electronics, software, and components of the plane work as designed
- Lightning simulations
In other words: relax. The plane you’re on has been tested beyond any real-life situation.
Planes are constantly maintained
You might not trust aeroplanes to be safe because you imagine they’re maintained the same way you maintain your car: that is, not at all, or at least not until a light comes on your dashboard or you’ve experienced your car mysteriously refusing to move. But that’s not the case — commercial aeroplanes are among the most maintained machines in the world. A typical plane will go through about 11 hours of maintenance for every hour it’s in the air.
And that maintenance is progressive, meaning it’s done on a constant basis to minimise downtime. Typically, a visual and fluid check is performed every two days, a more thorough maintenance check is done weekly, and every few years, the whole plane will be checked, with all access panels opened and parts removed for close inspection, cleaning, and repair, if necessary. All of this maintenance makes it extremely unlikely that there will be any sort of mechanical failure during your flight.
Pilots are tested regularly
If your anxiety about flying centres on the fitness and skill level of the pilot, you don’t have much to worry about. Commercial pilots are among some of the most tested and monitored professionals in the world.
First and foremost, the hiring process at most airlines is pretty stringent and thorough, which means any pilot with poor skills or existing mental or physical issues is most likely weeded out before they ever get into a cockpit. And the commercial pilot’s licence (CPL) they carry has to be renewed every five years. This renewal usually involves day and night flight tests, though under some circumstances, a pilot can receive a renewal by “recency” if they have logged enough hours in command of an aircraft within the prior six months.
Additionally, pilots under 40 are required by the Federal Aviation Authority to undergo a physical examination every year, and pilots over 40 must do so every six months. While these exams don’t have a specific psychological component, the examining doctor will usually evaluate their mental state and can order further evaluation if they deem it necessary. So don’t worry, your pilot is competent and ready to keep you safe.
There are tons of safety features
Aside from maintenance and pilot training and testing, there’s one more reason you shouldn’t worry about plane travel: All the safety features included in the design of the plane. Not only are modern planes over-engineered to withstand forces they most likely will never have to endure, they’re also a near-perfect partnership between an experienced pilot and incredibly advanced technology. The modern cockpit gives your pilot a detailed look at the world outside the plane and makes an accident very unlikely.
If you’ve heard the term “safety cage,” you know that it’s designed to protect you in the event of a car accident. Well, on a plane, the entire cabin is basically a huge safety cage, one that’s designed to withstand 16 times the force of gravity. All the upholstery is flame-retardant and non-toxic, you’re provided with oxygen automatically in case of depressurization, and there are flotation devices and other emergency gear. And don’t forget the flight crew: You have a team of experienced, well-trained professionals who will guide you through any emergency situation.
You don’t need all those engines
There’s an assumption that commercial jets have exactly enough resources to get in the air and stay there. As a result, there’s a tendency to panic at the idea of losing an engine — especially if it goes in spectacular fashion, like in this video from February 2021.
Yes, that’s…terrifying. But you can relax because the key takeaway for all modern planes is “over-engineered.” Your plane can fly perfectly well with just one engine. It may be slower and less efficient — and it obviously may need to land somewhere sooner rather than later — but you’re not going to drop out of the sky when an engine fails.
What if both engines fail? You’re still probably OK! Engines aren’t magical things keeping your plane in the air via sorcery. The modern plane design is the result of centuries of aerodynamics — it will glide. There are many documented cases of planes gliding to a relatively safe landing after experiencing engine failure.
Aeroplanes aren’t as gross as you think
Some folks aren’t concerned so much about crashing onto a mysterious island where smoke monsters and secret hatches lead to horrific adventures as they are about catching the Andromeda Strain (or COVID-19) from their filthy fellow passengers. But aeroplanes are a lot cleaner than you might think.
First of all, the air filtration and circulation systems in a plane are top-notch. The air is refreshed every few minutes, on average, and recycled air goes through a HEPA filtering system that removes almost all contaminants. The planes are also cleaned constantly — if you’ve ever had to stand around at an airport gate, waiting to get on your plane, it’s likely because the cleaning crew is in there. By the time you settle into your seat, things are usually pretty spotless. (If only the same could be said for your seatmate, who just took off their shoes and opened a fish sandwich.)
Turbulence isn’t dangerous
When the movies depict someone who’s afraid of flying, there’s always a moment of turbulence that freaks everybody out. And turbulence is absolutely frightening. The sudden shifts in gravity and the vibration of a plane flying through heavy winds will make even the most stoic person nervous.
But there’s actually very little to worry about — most turbulence is harmless. Turbulence is just air moving around the plane. It can’t really do any damage. Not only is your plane designed to withstand levels of turbulence you’ll never actually experience, but your pilots are trained to take some pretty simple steps to avoid and limit turbulence — most obviously by changing altitude slightly to escape a pocket of high winds. No one likes turbulence, but remind yourself that it’s really all for show.
No one can open the door mid-flight
If you’re worried more about the unpredictable people you’re trapped with inside a metal tube tens of thousands of feet in the air, that’s…totally understandable. It’s a scientific fact that people who aren’t you are potentially crazy. And crazy people do crazy things, like maybe freaking out and opening the cabin door in the middle of a flight, causing sudden depressurization as people are sucked out into the swirling winds.
Except, that literally cannot happen. The difference in air pressure outside and inside the plane means that there’s about 24,000 pounds of pressure pushing on that cabin door. Not even The Hulk could budge that door. No matter how crazy the passenger in 16C gets, that door is never going to open while you’re over the Atlantic Ocean.
Jet engines are durable
Although a commercial plane can fly on just one engine, and even land safely with no functioning engines, it’s understandable that many folks are anxious about engine failure when flying. After all, you’re tens of thousands of feet in the air in apparent contradiction of all natural laws.
But you shouldn’t worry. Jet engines might seem like delicate pieces of technology, but they’re actually much simpler and more reliable than car engines. They have fewer moving parts, they operate at a much lower RPM, and they don’t have to handle all the constant acceleration and deceleration of a car engine. Modern engines are expected to go 20-25,000 flight hours before needing significant maintenance, so your chances of experiencing any sort of engine failure are very low.
Zero chance of a collision
If you’re worried that your flight is going to end with an in-air collision…stop. There are tens of millions of flights every year, but usually fewer than 20 actual collisions. That’s because every plane is in constant contact with Air Traffic Control, which tracks every plane in the air and ensures they stay far away from each other.
And all cockpits are equipped with what’s known as Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS), which detects any other objects near the plane (other planes, mountains, alien spacecraft, etc.) and alerts the pilot so they can make in-flight adjustments. These two resources working together virtually ensure that you’re never going to hear the phrase “brace for impact” while travelling to some dismal place for a convention.