Deregulation has compromised air traffic safety, but domestic air travel is still so safe that odds are a person could take a flight every day for more than 29,000 years before being involved in a fatal crash, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study released Friday.
The 1977-86 figures for domestic non-stop flights with established carriers indicate travelers are at 10 times less risk today than they were during the 1960s, but the skies could be safer."One can come up with a very long list of things that make one nervous about flying, but the good news in that very rarely have these horrible genies really come out of the bottle," said MIT Professor Arnold Barnett, who compiled the fatality statistics with Pentagon analyst Mary K. Higgins.
But Barnett said lax air traffic control, substandard maintenance, undertrained cockpit crews and aging equipment were all liabilities associated with airline deregulation.
The death risk per flight in the absence of deregulation would have been about 35 percent lower than that actually recorded, according to the study, which appears in Management Science's January 1989 issue.
Barnett also said the record among the approximately 20 carriers established after the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act was relatively weak.
"The new carriers that came about after deregulation as a group did not do as well as the more established airlines," Barnett said. "The new entrants pushed the overall risk level for domestic jet flights up by more than 50 percent."
The majority of the upstart airlines, which make up 5 percent of all domestic flights, have never had a passenger fatality. But the study showed the new carriers' death risk per flight between 1979-86 was 12 times that of their established counterparts.
The survey, which included passenger deaths caused by criminal or terrorist acts, also found international jet flights have become statistically less risky among industrialized nations.
About 700 of 3 billion to 4 billion travelers died in domestic air crashes between 1979-86, Barnett said. Internationally, he estimated 300 died during the same period in accidents involving Western carriers, while 1,000 were killed on airlines from less-developed nations.
"With international flights there is a pattern in the numbers," Barnett said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "If you talk about Westernized regions, the international safety records of their leading flag carriers have been quite good, but when you talk about carriers in other parts of the world . . . they have pretty consistently been about eight times more risky per flight."
He suggested the prognosis for frequent fliers was good.
"People seem more nervous about flying these days and I myself have anxieties, but it is worth noting that it's four or five times as safe to fly now as it was a decade ago when no one was worrying at all," he said.