Skip to main content

Why you won't die in a plane crash

By Arnold Barnett, Special to CNN
July 9, 2013 -- Updated 1422 GMT (2222 HKT)
In this handout photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 sits just off the runway at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, July 7. The Boeing 777 coming from Seoul, South Korea, crashed on landing on Saturday, July 6. Three passengers, all girls, died as a result of the first notable U.S. air crash in four years. In this handout photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 sits just off the runway at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, July 7. The Boeing 777 coming from Seoul, South Korea, crashed on landing on Saturday, July 6. Three passengers, all girls, died as a result of the first notable U.S. air crash in four years.
HIDE CAPTION
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Arnold Barnett: Commercial flight fatalities rare, and most survived Asiana Flight 214 crash
  • He says a U.S. youth more likely to be president or win Nobel Prize in physics than die in crash
  • He says we must focus on mechanical reasons for crash
  • Barnett: Seven-second warning of stall should have come sooner

Editor's note: Arnold Barnett is the George Eastman Professor of Management Science and professor of statistics at MIT's Sloan School of Management. An aviation safety expert, he has worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Security Administration and two dozen airlines and airports. He was awarded the 2002 President's Citation from the Flight Safety Foundation for "truly outstanding contributions with respect to safety."

(CNN) -- I write this piece with some trepidation, because people are understandably troubled by the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 and want to know why it happened. They do not want to hear that it "could have been worse," that such events are extremely rare or that the causes of the accident aren't clear. But I will focus below on all of these points, because they are true and worth noting.

It is tragic that two teenage girls perished in the Asiana crash. But given the conflagration that left the plane a charred hulk, it is remarkable that 99% of the passengers survived the accident. Moreover, these were the first two deaths on scheduled commercial flights in the United States this year or, for that matter, in the last 4½ years. During that period, more 3 billion passengers flew with no fatalities in the United States or on U.S. airlines. Two in 3 billion is a very small number.

Did Asiana pilot have enough 777 experience?

Arnold Barnett
Arnold Barnett

How small? At that risk per flight, a traveler could on average fly once a day for 4 million years before succumbing to a fatal crash. An American youth at an airport is far more likely to grow up to be president than to perish on today's flight. (That youth is also more likely to win the Nobel Prize in physics.)

U.S. flying has become so safe that fear of an air journey is almost as farfetched as fear of a ceiling collapse at the grocery store. That circumstance is a remarkable tribute to the efforts of airlines, aircraft manufacturers, governments, the media and a flying public that holds aviation to the highest standards of safety.

Yet we should not tolerate even two deaths if they can plausibly be avoided. For that reason, we need to study carefully what went wrong on Asiana Flight 214 to minimize the risk of recurrence. We should resist the temptation to characterize what happened as pilot error, which can lead to the fatalistic view that "to err is human" and that these things are bound to happen. Even if the pilots did err in some way, the germane question is why.

First responder: 'We had no time'
Hero pilot: 'There are always surprises'
Young plane crash survivors speak

It appears Asiana Flight 214's problem was that it was flying so slowly it eventually stalled and collapsed to the ground.

Shock and survival: Crash through the eyes of children

But why were the pilots unaware of the slow speed? Were some of the instrument readings faulty? Might some of the readings have been hard to interpret (like the confusing readings about the rate of descent that caused a jet to crash in 1992 into a mountain)?

The pilots did get a warning about an impending stall about seven seconds before the plane hit the sea wall. But why was there only a seven-second warning? Could systems be reconfigured so that warnings about potential stalls are issued sooner? To be sure, earlier warnings might yield a proliferation of false alarms, but might that price be worth paying so that true alarms arrive in time to be useful? Had Asiana Flight 214 been warned seven seconds earlier, we might never have heard about it.

Under the circumstances, it is heartening that the National Transportation Safety Board will painstakingly study everything that happened on Asiana Flight 214, and will identify indirect as well as direct causes of the crash. That is the best reason to hope that what happened at San Francisco International Airport will never occur again within our lifetimes. And given all the progress to date in aviation safety, that hope is anything but forlorn.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arnold Barnett.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1615 GMT (0015 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT