Is Flying Safe?

Commercial carriers and private business jet manufacturers are jumping on inflight Internet. (Image credit: American Airlines)

The fatal crash of a commuter jet into a house in a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y. is the second crash of a plane in the United States in the last month.

But flying still remains far safer than driving.

Continental Connection Flight 3407 from Newark, N.J. crashed at around 10:20 p.m. EST about 5 miles from Buffalo Niagara International Airport, according to news reports. The crash killed all 49 passengers and crew members aboard the plane and one person in the house.

Early speculation into the cause of the crash includes ice forming on the plane. Several other pilots in the area reported picking up ice on their wings.

Icing occurs when supercooled water drops adhere to an aircraft wing and freeze (supercooled drops are liquid even though the temperature is below 32°F, or 0°C). When ice builds up on the wings of an aircraft, it can simultaneously slow velocity and decrease lift, potentially sending a plane into a catastrophic dive, according to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

The last fatal crash to occur within the United States was 2.5 years ago — the crash of a Comair Bombardier CRJ-100 near Lexington, KY that killed 47 people. The crash in January of US Airways flight 1549 into the Hudson River resulted in no fatalities.

According to the National Transportation Safety Bureau, which investigates air crashes, U.S. air carriers transported an estimated 770 million passengers in 2007, with a total of 44 fatalities in 62 air carrier accidents. In contrast, more than 44,000 people died in vehicle accidents in the United States in 2007.

The leading causes of death in the United States don’t have anything to do with what type of transportation you take, but with your health. The leading cause of death is heart disease, followed closely by cancer.

The lifetime odds of dying of heart disease are 1-in-5 (based on 2001 statistics), while those of dying in an auto accident are 1-in-100. The odds of dying in an air travel accident are 1-in-20,000.

Andrea Thompson
Live Science Contributor

Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.