Investigating Airplane Accidents Over the Past 110+ Years

I looked at the overall number of incidents and fatalities, and could tell that from an overall numbers perspective, it does look like the number of incidents have been steadily falling over the past century.

This holds true even when I examine a relative measure — i.


percentage of all flights and all air passengers that resulted in crashes and fatalities.

Unfortunately, uniform data for global air traffic isn’t freely available for years prior to 1970, and has been updated only until 2017.

However, this still gives us data for the past 45+ years.

The graph below clearly shows two things — in 1970s, the probability of crashes and fatalities were fairly low to begin with (~0.

00020% of air traffic resulted in accidents and fatalities).

Over the past 45 odd years, this number has further dropped by nearly 100%.

As of 2017, the fatalities/air traffic proportion had dropped to 0.


In other words, there were 3 fatalities for every 5 million people that travelled by planes.

Similarly, the accidents/air traffic proportion has decreased exponentially to 0.


Simply put, on average, for every 200,000 planes flow, 1 end ups in an accident.

The left axis plots percentage of flights that are involved in accidents per year, from 1970 t0 2017 (Grey line chart).

The right axis charts percentage of all passengers that died on account of plane accidents per year, from 1970 to 2017 (Red step line chart).

These are considerable improvements.

Like I noted, consistent improvements in aircraft technology have made our skies safer.

However, technology improvements and rising standards of living have been associated with a greater demand for air travel.

Airplane operators (and manufacturers) have responded with business models that seek to achieve ever increasing efficiencies of scale.

This has translated amongst other things, into a demand for aircrafts that are highly fuel-efficient, while accommodating greater number of passengers per flight.

As a result, while the overall number of accidents have decreased, the cost of each accident has steadily increased.

When I specify costs — I mean costs of human lives rather than monetary costs.

This is not to minimize monetary losses for various stakeholders, but rather to clarify that monetary costs are not a focus of this analysis.

The graph below charts a very simple measure — the average number of fatalities per accident, on an annual basis from 1908 until 2019.

The grey dotted trend line is a simple linear measure, which indicates that the average number of fatalities has been steadily increasing these past 111 years.

Of course, the story is a little more complicated than that.

If we were to look a little more closely, we can tell that around 1990s, the average number of fatalities appears to have been gradually dropping.

However, in the past 5 years or so, this trend seems to have reversed, with steep spikes in 2014 and 2015, followed by another steeper spike in 2018 and 2019 (until March that is).

In fact, assuming we don’t have other crashes this year (hopefully), 2019 will have been the deadliest over the past 111 years for average fatalities associated with air traffic accidents.

While it is too early to tell how this trend might develop over the next five years, it is nevertheless concerning.

It raises important questions around how air travel is regulated, and what passes for an acceptable degree of risk when it comes to air traffic (in an ideal world, we would have zero risks — an ideal state that should form the basis of our regulators’ and aircraft manufacturers’ objectives).

As the Boeing 737 Max-8 investigation develops, it will be interesting to watch how regulators (especially major ones such as FAA) respond, and what (if any) measures they take to ensure that air travel is afforded the highest levels of safety.

Notes:First, I must send out a massive thank you to planecrashinfo.

com — an open source website that has carefully curated airplane accidents from 1908, and continues to be updated regularly.

I will also thank hocnx from Kaggle, for providing the basic building blocks of Python code to scrape, clean and organize this data in a machine readable format.

I used World Bank’s open datasets to gather data around total air traffic from 1970s until 2017.

I used Python to collect this data, and a combination of R and Tableau for analysis and visualization.

I designed the interactive visualization in R using the fantastic SunburstR package built by Kent Russell.

A quick disclaimer: I am not an air traffic expert, and most of my plane crash knowledge comes from analyzing this dataset and reading articles while analyzing this data.

As such, if I have overlooked something important, please do let me know via comments or email.

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