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Flight Check: What Are the Chances I'll Die on My Next Plane Trip?

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Five commercial airliners have crashed or crash-landed in just 10 weeks. It began on December 20th when Continental 1404 slid off a snowy runway in Denver. Now, Turkish Airlines 1951 has gone down while landing in Amsterdam, with nine lives lost and 50 seriously injured. It's enough to make you wonder if the sky is falling and whether it's safe to fly.

Today, I turned to one of the world's leading authorities on airplane crash statistics. Arnold Barnett is a professor at MIT who invented a handy numerical value known as Q. It measures your risk of death on your next flight. Barnett, it should be noted, is afraid of flying.

Despite the tragic loss of life outside Buffalo and Amsterdam, Barnett says that commercial jet travel is actually getting safer and safer. For the purposes of understanding risks, he divides the world and its airline carriers into different categories.

For instance, he argues, your risk of dying on your next First-World domestic jet tip is around one in 50 million. That means if you fly domestically in the industrialized world (say, Europe), your chances of dying are one in 50 million. Despite the crash in Amsterdam, this fact doesn't change because Barnett says Turkish Airlines isn't a First-World carrier. (And, as Bloomberg reports, the latest crash was the fourth fatal incident for the carrier in 15 years).

It's worth noting that in the United States, your risk of dying of your next flight is a little better: One in 60 million. In other words, you could fly every day for the next 164,000 years on average before you would perish in a crash.

If you travel outside the industrialized world but still fly on a First-World carrier, your risk of dying increases. In that case, Barnett says, your Q is about one in 15 million. And if you fly on Third-World or former Soviet bloc air carriers, your risk of dying is about one in 2 million.

In short, if you fly in the United States or the major industrialized nations on First World air carriers, your chances of perishing are incredibly slim. If you fly outside the US on non-First World carriers, your chances are still small, but hardly negligible.

In my next post, I'll examine the safest seats on a plane. Is the Times of London correct when it asserts: "Where you sit can save you, Amsterdam air crash shows."