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The Stats on Safety in the Skies
January 7, 1995 -- A series of tragic airline crashes last year has rattled the souls of even the most intrepid travelers and left many questioning the safety of the nation's skies.

But the blunt and incontrovertible fact of the matter is that flying remains the single safest way to travel in the United States. Even taking into account the two USAir jet crashes last summer and the accidents involving two American Eagle propeller-driven aircraft last fall, the skies are markedly safer than the nation's interstate-highway system, its railroad networ, and its waterways.

HARD FACTS
Like it or not, statistics remain the only reliable and objective measure of safety--and numbers say that flying on scheduled air carriers is at least 25 times safer than traveling in an automobile on the nation's interstate highways. If anything, airline safety has improved in recent years. In 1989, for example, the scheduled airlines suffered a fatal accident less than once (actually, 0.797 times) for every 100,000 departures. In 1993, the last year for which complete figures are available, the fatal-accident rate had declined to 0.013. In other words, on the basis of the 1993 safety statistics, your chance of being involved in a fatal airline accident is about one in 10 million.

HARD EMOTIONS
But statistics are cold comfort when a traveler's sense of personal well-being is involved. Travelers feel out of control when they fly: they are locked in a metal tube thousands of feet off the ground and cannot influence events. Even though driving is statistically more dangerous, travelers believe they have some control over their destiny when they are behind the wheel. Still, there are ways travelers can increase their margin of safety and feeling of security when planning a trip that involves airline travel.

KNOW THE JARGON
Whenever there's an airline accident, travelers are confused by the apparently meaningful distinctions made between "major," "national," and "regional" air carriers. Yet these have nothing to do with the relative safety or geographic location of an airline. They are terms used by the government to group air carriers by financial size. One example: the U.S. Department of Transportation classifies the United Parcel Service as a "major" carrier, even though it does not carry passengers and is not an airline.

What is often most important from the standpoint of traveler safety is the type of aircraft an airline flies. Statistics indicate that there's a marked difference between the safety records of jets and the safety performance of the smaller, propeller-driven aircraft. These small aircraft--sometimes referred to as "turbo props" and usually flown by a category of airline generically known as "commuter carriers"--are much more likely to crash or have accidents than jets. The estimated fatality rate of prop-driven planes in 1994 was 0.070 per 100,000 departures, about five times higher than the industry-wide rate.

IF IN DOUBT ...
If you don't like the odds on the turbo props--the fatality rate translates to one in 1.5 million--don't fly them. Your travel agent or the airline reservations clerk knows the equipment used on each and every flight. Ask to be booked only on jets. But be warned: Airline economics are forcing prop-driven planes to carry a much greater percentage of the nation's traffic than ever before. More and more routes--especially those between a "hub" airport such as Chicago/O'Hare and an airport in a small city--are serviced exclusively by prop planes. The alternative may be a long-distance drive to your final destination.

IMPROVING THE ODDS
There are dozens of reasons why prop planes have a poorer safety record than jets do. Some reasons are regulatory: Until recently, the government held commuter airlines to less stringent safety rules. Some are technological: Many prop-driven planes are not as mechanically sophisticated as jets. Some are economic: Commuter airlines are the training ground for jet carriers, so prop pilots tend to be younger and less experienced. Some are purely technical: As the chart shows, only 5 per-cent of jet crashes occur when a plane has reached its cruising altitude. Yet because prop planes fly shorter routes--often as little as 100 miles in the air--they rarely cruise. Weather is also a factor. Because they fly at lower altitudes, prop planes frequently operate in dangerous conditions of wind, rain, snow and ice. Add the weather dangers to the other factors and the chances of a turbo-prop accident increase. If travelers do just one thing to improve their odds of a safe flight, it should be to avoid prop-driven planes in stormy weather.

A PERSONAL THOUGHT
I've been on a jet struck by lightning. I've been in a small plane with engine trouble, necessitating an emergency landing on a frozen lake. I was a passenger on two flights on the same day involved in runway near-misses. But the most frightened I have ever been was last winter, when I was rushing to make a flight to Hong Kong and my ratty old convertible went into an uncontrollable spin on an icy highway.

My point is simple: I honestly believe that travelers are safer in the air than on the ground. If we were all as well trained as drivers as the average pilot is trained as a aviator, and if our cars were all as well engineered and as carefully maintained as the average commercial aircraft, there'd be a lot fewer fatalities among travelers in the world.

This column originally appeared in Travel Holiday magazine.

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