Another plane crash made international headlines this week. This time, the story was that Germanwings Flight 4U 9525 crashed into the French Alps on a flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf. The news was awful and tragic, but it mimics a pattern that’s been appearing in the news lately. Last year around this time, missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 cultivated sustained, global interest. A few months later, the shooting of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was framed as a politicized story about turmoil in eastern Ukraine. These are all terrible stories of mass tragedy, but the frequency at which plane crashes are being covered and reported speaks more to the level of interest in these types of stories (and the tendency for media companies to exploit that interest) than it does overall trends of aviation safety.
All of the aforementioned crashes occurred as a result of unusual circumstances. The first Malaysian Airlines flight went down for unknown reasons and then went missing. Conspiracy theories still abound in regards to its current fate. The second Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down in what was essentially an act of war, regardless of whether or not it was an accident. The Germanwings plane appears to have been deliberately crashed by its co-pilot, who intentionally locked the pilot out of the cockpit. Another well-documented crash, the TransAsia plane that went down in a Taiwan river earlier this year, was reported on a wide-scale because it was captured on video from the ground.
Despite the wide coverage of these stories, aviation safety is actually at an all-time high. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, 95% of all plane crash passengers from 1983 to 2000 have survived. The number of commercial airline crashes have also been steadily decreasing since 1980, as have the amount of fatalities. Planes are actually safer than most other methods of transportation — the U.S. Department of Transportation reports that 32,850 people died from automobile accidents in 2013 in the U.S. alone. Vox estimates the risk of death while driving as at least 10 times higher than the risk of death while flying.
Plane crashes are given media attention because the fears associated with flying are relatable on a wide scale. Anyone who’s been on a plane knows the terrifying feeling of knowing that the fate of the aircraft is out of the passengers' control. In the case of the Germanwings flight, the co-pilot confirmed that common fear can occasionally be validated. Yet the sensationalist reporting that surrounds these types of accidents only capitalize on those fears, embellishing the dangers of what has actually become one of the safest methods of transportation in the world. There have been at least eight other instances in the history of commercial aviation in which a pilot has deliberately crashed a plane. Most crashes, in fact, are based on human error. But this crash, as well as the other high-profile crashes that occurred within the past year, are all statistical outliers. As the New York Times reports, there were fewer crashes around the world in 2014 than in any year since 1927.
The statistics clearly show that air travel is not only the safest it’s ever been, but safer than even driving a car. Yet people still drive without fear on a daily basis, only getting nervous when they board a commercial flight. That natural fear of helplessness will likely always exist amongst airline passengers, and that’s the reason that stories like that of the Germanwings flight will become international media sensations. Plane crashes are terrible, tragic accidents. That doesn’t mean that the media needs to report on them in a sensationalist way. If only it were easier to get the world to pay attention to important stories without capitalizing on their own their own fears or apprehension.