Skip to main content

Why you won't die in a plane crash

By Arnold Barnett, Special to CNN
July 9, 2013 -- Updated 1422 GMT (2222 HKT)
In this handout photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 sits just off the runway at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, July 7. The Boeing 777 coming from Seoul, South Korea, crashed on landing on Saturday, July 6. Three passengers, all girls, died as a result of the first notable U.S. air crash in four years. In this handout photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 sits just off the runway at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, July 7. The Boeing 777 coming from Seoul, South Korea, crashed on landing on Saturday, July 6. Three passengers, all girls, died as a result of the first notable U.S. air crash in four years.
HIDE CAPTION
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Arnold Barnett: Commercial flight fatalities rare, and most survived Asiana Flight 214 crash
  • He says a U.S. youth more likely to be president or win Nobel Prize in physics than die in crash
  • He says we must focus on mechanical reasons for crash
  • Barnett: Seven-second warning of stall should have come sooner

Editor's note: Arnold Barnett is the George Eastman Professor of Management Science and professor of statistics at MIT's Sloan School of Management. An aviation safety expert, he has worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Security Administration and two dozen airlines and airports. He was awarded the 2002 President's Citation from the Flight Safety Foundation for "truly outstanding contributions with respect to safety."

(CNN) -- I write this piece with some trepidation, because people are understandably troubled by the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 and want to know why it happened. They do not want to hear that it "could have been worse," that such events are extremely rare or that the causes of the accident aren't clear. But I will focus below on all of these points, because they are true and worth noting.

It is tragic that two teenage girls perished in the Asiana crash. But given the conflagration that left the plane a charred hulk, it is remarkable that 99% of the passengers survived the accident. Moreover, these were the first two deaths on scheduled commercial flights in the United States this year or, for that matter, in the last 4½ years. During that period, more 3 billion passengers flew with no fatalities in the United States or on U.S. airlines. Two in 3 billion is a very small number.

Did Asiana pilot have enough 777 experience?

Arnold Barnett
Arnold Barnett

How small? At that risk per flight, a traveler could on average fly once a day for 4 million years before succumbing to a fatal crash. An American youth at an airport is far more likely to grow up to be president than to perish on today's flight. (That youth is also more likely to win the Nobel Prize in physics.)

U.S. flying has become so safe that fear of an air journey is almost as farfetched as fear of a ceiling collapse at the grocery store. That circumstance is a remarkable tribute to the efforts of airlines, aircraft manufacturers, governments, the media and a flying public that holds aviation to the highest standards of safety.

Yet we should not tolerate even two deaths if they can plausibly be avoided. For that reason, we need to study carefully what went wrong on Asiana Flight 214 to minimize the risk of recurrence. We should resist the temptation to characterize what happened as pilot error, which can lead to the fatalistic view that "to err is human" and that these things are bound to happen. Even if the pilots did err in some way, the germane question is why.

First responder: 'We had no time'
Hero pilot: 'There are always surprises'
Young plane crash survivors speak

It appears Asiana Flight 214's problem was that it was flying so slowly it eventually stalled and collapsed to the ground.

Shock and survival: Crash through the eyes of children

But why were the pilots unaware of the slow speed? Were some of the instrument readings faulty? Might some of the readings have been hard to interpret (like the confusing readings about the rate of descent that caused a jet to crash in 1992 into a mountain)?

The pilots did get a warning about an impending stall about seven seconds before the plane hit the sea wall. But why was there only a seven-second warning? Could systems be reconfigured so that warnings about potential stalls are issued sooner? To be sure, earlier warnings might yield a proliferation of false alarms, but might that price be worth paying so that true alarms arrive in time to be useful? Had Asiana Flight 214 been warned seven seconds earlier, we might never have heard about it.

Under the circumstances, it is heartening that the National Transportation Safety Board will painstakingly study everything that happened on Asiana Flight 214, and will identify indirect as well as direct causes of the crash. That is the best reason to hope that what happened at San Francisco International Airport will never occur again within our lifetimes. And given all the progress to date in aviation safety, that hope is anything but forlorn.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arnold Barnett.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT