Any plane crash involving a passenger carrier is highly unlikely—but Tuesday’s loss of a Germanwings Airbus A320 in the French Alps is especially unusual given the tragedy’s circumstances.
Flight 9525 was carrying 150 people at a cruising altitude of 38,000 feet Tuesday morning before it began rapidly descending, officials said. That’s an unfortunately familiar story—the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and AirAsia Flight 8501 crashes happened at cruising altitude. But it’s also very rare: only 10% of fatal accidents involving a plane damaged beyond repair involved a plane that had reached cruising altitude, according to a report by Boeing. Officials said Thursday that the co-pilot intentionally crashed the plane.
But most accidents (called “hull loss fatal accidents”) occur during takeoff and landing. Recent examples include last month’s TransAsia Flight 235 crash, which suffered engine failure 37 seconds after takeoff, or last year’s TransAsia Flight 222 crash, which crashed on landing due to bad weather.
Previous reasons for catastrophe at cruising altitude have ranged from pilot suicide to structural failure to terrorist bombings. The White House said Tuesday there is “no indication of a nexus to terrorism” regarding the Germanwings flight.
But the Germanwings crash is unusual for another reason, too. The plane involved, an Airbus A320, has one of the best safety records compared to other popular models, with 0.14 hull loss fatal accidents per million departures, according to Boeing, which analyzed safety data between 1959 and 2013.
During that time range, the Airbus A320 was roughly as safe as the long-range Boeing 777, which had 0.13 hull loss fatal accidents per million departures. It was also roughly as safe the Boeing 737 family and Embraer (EMB) family, some of the most common jets used for shorter commercial flights.
Keep in mind Boeing’s data only goes through 2013. So for better or for worse, it doesn’t account for Malaysia Airlines’ two tragedies in 2014 that involved the Boeing 777. And since the Boeing 777 had only 3 hull losses before then, the 777’s hull loss fatal accident rate has now likely almost doubled. Boeing’s data also doesn’t account for the two recent A320 accidents—the Germanwings crash and the AirAsia crash in December—though these will have less of an impact on the A320 family’s rate, since those aircraft had 19 hull losses through 2013.