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AirAsia Plane Crash

A Deadly Year for Flying, But Air Safety Remains High

The latest air disaster, of AirAsia QZ8501, adds to one of the deadliest years for flying in about a decade. But air travel remains very safe.

The latest air disaster, of AirAsia QZ8501, adds to one of the deadliest years for flying in about a decade. But air travel remains very safe. FRANCIS R. MALASIG / EPA

By the numbers, 2014 was one of the deadliest years for plane crashes in recent memory. But aviation safety experts say that’s no reason to avoid flying.

Early Tuesday, Indonesian officials confirmed that debris found off the coast of Borneo was from AirAsia flight QZ8501, which went missing Sunday carrying 162 people. Officials told NBC that at least six corpses had been found.

Including AirAsia QZ8501, 22 accidents throughout 2014 have resulted in 992 fatalities -- the most since 2005, when 1,014 people were killed, according to Aviation Safety Network. Of the incidents this year, eight involved passenger airlines.

Among the deadliest: The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370 in March carrying 239 people, the Malaysian Airlines MH17 crash in July with 298 people and the Air Algerie AH5017 crash, also in July, with 116 passengers and crew aboard.

“It should be reassuring that the safety level is very high at the moment.”

Despite the high tally of fatalities, experts say the numbers underscore how safe flying is. Those eight accidents involving passenger flights represent a record low since the advent of modern aviation in 1946, said Harro Ranter, president of Aviation Safety Network.

AirAsia confirms wreckage from Flight 8501 2:29

They come even amid the rapid growth in air traffic. Based on 2000’s accident rate per 1 million passengers, we could have expected to see 39 passenger flight accidents in 2014, he said.

“There have been some significant safety improvements since 2000,” Ranter said. “It should be reassuring that the safety level is very high at the moment.”

Nor is there any pattern in recent accidents that shows a common safety issue for travelers to worry about, said aviation expert Jock Williams, a retired Royal Canadian Air Force pilot. "Things are going nowhere but up,” he said. Older aircraft are being replaced, and technology is being updated. The aviation industry is also quick to glean what it can from any accident, and then improved policies and training.

Long odds

Travelers face long odds on being in any airline accident, let alone a fatal crash. “Taken as a percentage, [the risk] is just miniscule,” said Williams. Flying on one of the world’s major airlines, on any single flight, you have a 1 in 4.7 million chance of being killed, according to PlaneCrashInfo.com, which tracked accident data from 1993 to 2012. Even if you’re flying on one of the airlines with the worst safety records, your odds are still 1 in 2 million.

Over a lifetime, the chance of dying in an “air and space transport incident,” as the National Safety Council describes it, are 1 in 8,357. To put that in perspective, by their data from 2010, you’re more likely to die from other causes including heat exposure (1:8,321), choking (1:3,649), in an accident as a pedestrian (1:723), a fall (1:152) or unintentional poisoning (1:119). Of course, causes such as heart disease, cancer and car accidents are also substantially more likely to occur.

Worried travelers can check the safety of their airline, although a good record is no guarantee of future safety. Resources including the Air Transport Rating Agency and AirlineRatings.com assess safety records and rank airlines. You can check to see if your airline is listed as a member of The International Air Transport Association, which limits membership to those airlines that have passed a safety audit. The European Union also maintains a list of airlines banned from operating there because they don’t meet safety standards.