On Sunday, an AirAsia flight vanished over the ocean — and all 162 people aboard are presumed dead. It's the fourth major airline disaster in a year marred by headlines about planes crashing and disappearing.
So, is air travel getting more dangerous? No, it's not — it's getting safer every year. A few high-profile tragedies aside, 2014 saw the fewest commercial airline crashes since 1949, the beginning of air travel of that kind.
AirAsia Flight 8501 left Indonesia early Sunday morning on its way to Singapore with 162 people on board. After its pilots contacted air traffic control to inquire about increasing altitude to avoid a storm, it disappeared and hasn't been heard from since. The search is still underway, but this morning an Indonesian official said it's likely "at the bottom of the sea."
It's been an especially rough year for Malaysia-based carriers. In March, there was the mystifying disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370, which vanished with 239 passengers while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Nine months later, the aircraft still hasn’t been located. In July, tragedy struck a different Malaysia Airlines voyage when Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over rebel-occupied eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.
Also last March, an Air Algerie flight crashed in Mali, killing 116 people.
The string of tragedies — and the ensuing media freakouts — made flying in 2014 sound, at times, like a pretty terrifying prospect. Reality is at least a bit rosier. It’s still super-safe to fly. In fact, 2014 has only seen 111 crashes, according to CNN, which is the lowest number per year since the advent of commercial flight. That stat's especially impressive considering there are a lot more flights now than in decades past: As of September 2014, the average rate of crashes was only 2.1 accidents for every million flights.
Here's the bad news: Although the overall crash rate was low this year, there was a spike in aviation deaths. Including everyone on board the latest missing AirAsia flight, 1,320 people have died in aircraft accidents in 2014 — the most since 2005. That’s a pretty massive jump from only one year before, when, according to records from the Aviation Safety Network, only 265 people were killed in flight incidents, making 2013 the safest commercial-aviation year since 1945. (In comparison, the deadliest year was 1972, with 3,346 aviation deaths, per the Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives.)
All told, though, flying in 2014 was safe — considerably more so than driving. More than 35,000 people were killed in car crashes in 2013 in the U.S. alone.