Why we worry about flying

Story highlights

  • EgyptAir Flight 804 traveling from Paris to Cairo disappeared from radar
  • Ali Abbas: Despite worries such incidents spark, flying is still extremely safe way of traveling

Ali E. Abbas is Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering and Professor of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. He is also the director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Decisions and Ethics (DECIDE). The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)The disappearance of EgyptAir Flight 804, which vanished from radar on its way from Paris to Cairo early Thursday, has once again prompted people to ask a question that looms in the back of the mind of many travelers: Is flying really safe?

We still do not know what has happened to the EgyptAir flight. Indeed, at the time of writing, neither the plane nor any wreckage had been found. But that doesn't mean that the answer to the question is any different. Yes, flying is safe. In fact, it is far safer than many of the things we do every day.
Ali Abbas
Of course, with the uncertainty we are faced with in this latest case -- it is unclear if it was a technical fault, weather-related or (as officials seem to believe is more likely) the result of terrorism -- it is hardly surprising that people are concerned.
    But for those wondering whether they might be better sticking to destinations that are within driving distance, it is worth taking a look at the numbers. Of course, statistics for driving and flying are not directly comparable. But still, the chance of dying in a car accident each year in the United States is about 10 per 100,000, or 100 per million people.
    The chance of dying in an airplane accident, in contrast, is less than 1 in 14 million globally. The chances of dying in in an airplane accident are actually considerably less than the odds of being killed by a co-worker (9 in 1 million). Other studies have shown that the average number of years you can expect to fly before dying in an air crash is 14,176.
    These numbers will clearly vary depending on how much you fly. But even if you were a member of the million-mile club, the fact remains that flying is a very safe activity. So why are so many people nervous when it comes time to fly? And why is the perception of the risk of flying so different from the statistical reality?
    Behavioral decision-making provides several insights into why the perceived risk of flying is higher than it really is, specifically through what is known as cognitive biases. Perhaps the most relevant biases here are anchoring and availability. Anchoring is a well-known cognitive bias that is demonstrated when people rely too heavily on a single piece of information that resides in their salient memory when making a decision. Availability bias is the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of an event where there is greater "availability," or greater "detail," in our memory.
    Why does this happen? Because airplane incidents are often far more catastrophic than car accidents in terms of lives lost, and so they get more media attention. We learn a lot about airplane incidents, such as the time the incident occurred, the route, the passengers, the type of airplane, and we sympathize with the families and the loved ones. This is only human.
    Subconsciously, these factors, while important, contribute to our availability bias. If all tragic car accidents were presented in the news with such detail, there would probably be a similar, escalated effect, and people might question whether or not they should limit -- or even stop -- driving.
    And there is another factor that makes people more nervous about flying than getting behind the wheel. The most common answer people provide in response to the question of why they fear flying more than driving is that they have less control when traveling in a plane. After all, you are putting your life in the hands of the pilot, and psychological studies have shown that everyone thinks they are above average drivers. (This important cognitive bias can be described as the overconfidence bias -- we all think we are above average, even if that obviously is not possible).
    Finally, what about terrorism -- that is another reason why flying is risky, right?
    Not so fast. Yes, terrorism exists. But it has existed for centuries, and travelers of any sort -- whether flying or catching their bus to work -- cannot allow themselves to be afraid of what might happen when they leave their homes. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said last year as he explained the enormous efforts the department is undertaking to confront terrorism threats: "the most important thing we can do for the strength of our nation is to preserve our values and not be afraid. Terrorism cannot succeed if we are not afraid."
    By taking the time to remind ourselves of the facts, we can hopefully make that aspiration more attainable -- and in the process be a little less afraid of flying.