Taiwan crash
TAIPEI, TAIWAN - FEBRUARY 04: Rescuers check the wreckage of the TransAsia ATR 72-600 on the Keelung river at New Taipei City on February 4, 2015.  Ashley Pon/Getty Images

East Asia's Airlines Are Pretty Much No More Dangerous Than American Ones

Feb 04, 2015

A horrific string of recent plane accidents has rocked airlines across Southeast Asia.

Since 2014, the horrible news has fallen like a drumbeat: Malaysia Airlines Flights 370 and 17, AirAsia Flight 8501, TransAsia Airways Flight 222, and just this Wednesday, the terrifying spectacle of TransAsia Airways Flight 235 clipping a wing on an overpass in Taipei before crash-landing in the Keelung River.

The headlines do seem to point to a regional safety problem. But widen the focus to carriers around the world, and the differences quickly vanish.

The International Air Transport Association keeps a running tally of "significant" accidents around the world — "significant" in this case refers to accidents that cause injuries or at least $1 million in damage. Carriers based in Southeast Asia and the Pacific averaged roughly 2.7 accidents for every 1 million flights between 2009 and 2013, according to the IATA. North American carriers, by comparison, averaged 1.32 accidents. The world map below breaks down accident rates for each region's carriers for 2014 (dark blue numbers) and across five years (light blue numbers):

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At first glance, the figures might capture slight variations in safety records, but that word slight is an understatement. These numbers tally accidents per million flights, which means the differences amount to a fraction of 1%. To be precise, Asian Pacific carriers had a .0001% higher accident rate than North American carriers. Maybe that's a risk not worth taking, but by that same logic, north Asian carriers would be the safest option in the world.

An alternative takeaway is that picking flights by regional carrier is a pretty ineffective way of managing risk, since the risk is so rare and hard to predict — and so easily mistaken for a trend.

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