Just how safe is air travel?

Despite the tragic and mysterious crash of Pan Am Flight 103 at Lockerbie Scotland, and despite Monday's near-disaster when a hole opened in the fuselage of an Eastern Airlines jet at 31,000 feet, airline officials insist flying is safe.What they mean, of course, is that it is relatively safe. Compared to other risks - risks taken to be part and parcel of 20th century life - flying comes out looking very safe indeed.

Statisticians point out that the chances of being killed on a coast-to-coast commercial flight are about one in a million compared to one in 8,000 if the same trip were made by car.

True enough. But there are, nonetheless, several points that ought to be mentioned when it comes to conventional wisdom.

In the first place, there are always some problems in using past performance to predict the future. Just because there have been relatively few plane crashes in the past doesn't mean that number will remain constant. This is especially true as the fleet of commercial aircraft enters midlife and age begins to show itself in structural stress.

And when deaths from plane crashes are compared with lives lost on U.S. highways, it's important to remember that these figures involve, in some ways, comparing apples and oranges.

It's unclear whether auto fatality statistics cited by the airline industry distinguish between what might be deemed responsible vs. irresponsible driving. Many deaths occur on highways because people are driving at excessive speeds, driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or simply not wearing seatbelts.

In short, the driver can do many things to keep from having an accident and to survive an accident if he has one. By contrast, passengers on a commercial airliner can do nothing to enhance their chances of surviving a crash. It's that fact that makes some people nervous about flying, even if the safety odds are quite good.

So the question becomes: Of those who fly, is the percentage of those killed greater or lesser than the percentage of drivers killed while driving responsibly?

It may well be that air travel is still much safer than traveling long distances by car. And, of course, there are those whose professions make flying essential.

But the average two-or-three-times-a-year flier most likely wants more and better information about safety before making an informed decision about whether to fly or drive.