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Air Safety: Nothing But Blue Skies?

Air Safety: Nothing But Blue Skies?

This video was recorded at MIT World Series: Back to the Classroom 2009. While Arnold Barnett acknowledges addressing the same questions around flying year after year ("Does he ever change his schtick?"), he advertises some new twists this time 'round. Barnett remains remarkably consistent, though, in his quite sunny assessment of the current state of aviation safety -- even after a recent string of air accidents. Wielding statistics and the occasional wisecrack, Barnett arrives at his destination by way of a series of dialectical questions. How safe is it to fly now? Doesn't that depend on how we measure aviation safety, and which statistics are the most informative? You could look at such metrics as fatal accidents per flight hours, or hull loss per 100 thousand departures, or passengers killed to passengers carried. Barnett proposes instead the "imperfect but meaningful" statistic of death risk per randomly chosen flight, which among other conceptual advantages, deals with the odds of being killed -- a factor with "intuitive appeal." Barnett's numbers: From 2000 to 2008, someone who chose a U.S. jet flight at random would sustain an accidental death risk of 1 in 23 million (there were 3 crashes in 69 million total jet flights). There's a much greater likelihood an American child will become president (one in 2 million) than die in flight. Death risk statistics from the 1960s through today have improved steadily, plateauing in the current decade due to the unprecedented tragedy of 9/11. Currently, there's a one in 10 million risk of death by jet in U.S. flight, around 1 in 14 million for other developed nations (the developing world's aviation risk poses somewhat greater hazards: one in 1.5 million). Says Barnett,"Despite recent suggestions to the contrary, regional jet flights are not less safe than national airlines." While "fatal accidents on first world jets are on the verge of extinction," Barnett worries about an increase in runway collisions, as the global economy improves. He hopes technological advances will address these concerns. The greater challenge comes from terrorism, which he feels sure will continue to target aviation. Using a cost benefit analysis, Barnett dispenses with proposals to ban laptops on flights, and also dismisses the idea of faster, more effective responses to terrorist attacks, which often come in clusters. Ultimately, our "optimal strategy might actually be to do nothing, except hope." Perhaps we should come to view aviation dangers as Californians regard the threat of earthquakes: Take precautions but acknowledge "we have to take certain risks in life if we're going to have lives worth risking."

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