How Safe Are Private Airplanes?

by William Angelley on June 21, 2012

Most people have heard that it’s safer to travel by air than by car.  Statistically, this is true in terms of the likelihood that a person will be involved in an accident on any given trip.  Nonetheless, many people are terrified of flying.  The reality though is that commercial airplanes rarely crash.  In fact, it has been several years since a commercial airliner crashed with fatalities in the United States.  But, when catastrophe strikes, the death toll from a commercial crash can be very high.  Everyone hears about the horror.

In contrast, private planes – also known as general aviation or GA — crash much more frequently.  But, the number of resulting deaths and/or injuries per crash is small and very few people hear about them because these crashes get very little press coverage.  The loss of one or two individuals here and there doesn’t strike fear in Americans collectively.  It’s the same in the automotive world.  There is very little news coverage for car accidents.

But, the number of individuals killed and families devastated annually by private plane crashes is significant.  According to the National Transportation Safety Board, 450 individuals died in 2010 in GA crashes and thousands more were injured.  To quote the NTSB website, GA has “the highest aviation accident rates within civil aviation: about 6 times higher than small commuter and air taxi operations and over 40 times higher than larger transport category operations.”

These numbers, and the NTSB’s concerns, should concern anyone who flies privately.   The NTSB investigations of GA crashes often conclude that pilot error was the cause.  To be certain, proper pilot training is key.  Appropriate training can be critical in emergency situations. But, pilot error is not the only culprit.  Improper maintenance, design and manufacturing issues, weather and air traffic control mistakes can also cause GA crashes.

General aviation can be fun, but the safety margins are still well below that of commercial airlines.  Reducing the GA accident and incident numbers should be one the Federal Aviation Administration’s highest priorities.

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