Data: Are plane crashes becoming more common?

Like everyone else, I was particularly struck by the horrific details that emerged after the Germanwings crash on 24 March. As the story emerged at the press conference, I was glued to my phone watching the live updates.

A little while after, the story got me thinking – just how common are plane crashes?

It seems like the news has been constantly filled with similar stories recently – the dramatic Transasia crash in Taiwan that was captured on a dashcam, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370 in the Indian Ocean, and the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines MH17 over Ukraine. Stories of horrific crashes, causing huge amounts of death, seem to be appearing monthly.

As always, the media is always on hand to invent a trend.

Thank you, Mail Online
Thank you, Mail Online

But does this apparent recent spike in reporting reflect the reality? I went to planecrashinfo.com, a fairly exhaustive database of fatal plane crashes, to find out more.

After doing some scraping, cleaning and datawrapping of every plane crash dating back to 1970, I found that there’s never been a safer time to fly than today.

Note that the dataset I used includes all plane crashes – even small, private planes, as well as large commercial airliners.

planecrashessssss

Barring a few spikes here and there, particularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, air crashes have steadily fallen in the last few decades.

There were 33 plane crashes in 2014, compared with 91 in 1970. And in 1972, the number peaked at 104.

The most dramatic fall has been seen in the last few years, especially since 2000. The fact is, more people are flying than have in the past, and less of them are dying in crashes.

There’s a number of theories on why this is – automation, both in the maintenance and flying of aeroplanes, has increased over time as technology has improved. This gradual removal of human error has made accidents less likely. After all, computers don’t get tired, ill, or let their children fly the plane – as the pilot of Aeroflot Flight 539 did. He let his son sit in the pilot’s seat, the child accidentally disabled the autopilot and lost control of the plane, and the crash killed all 75 people on board. You can see a dramatic animation of the plane’s last moments here.

Low-cost airlines often buy planes in bulk (getting a discount), and often only fly one type of plane – this makes maintenance more affordable and cheaper, and is another theory as to why flying is so much safer today.

There’s plenty of interesting ideas about why accidents have fallen, but the figures themselves are interesting – proving it sometimes pays off to look in to the data and check whether received wisdom about the world is actually true.

I’ll post a tutorial of how I created this data story soon.

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