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Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of ten of America's presidencies and who has edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. We get over 5 million article visits a year. See for full contents of our site

January 11, 2010


Nate Silver, Five Thirty Eight - In the 2000s, a total of 469 passengers (including crew and terrorists) were killed worldwide as the result of violent passenger Incidents, 265 of which were on 9/11 itself. No fatal incidents have occurred since nearly simultaneous bombings of two Russian aircraft on 8/24/2004; this makes for the longest streak without a fatal incident since World War II. The overall death toll during the 2000s is about the same as it was during the 1960s, and substantially less than in the 1970s and 1980s, when violent incidents peaked. The worst individual years were 1985, 1988 and 1989, in that order; 2001 ranks fourth.

Of course, there is a lot more air travel now than there was a couple of decades ago. Although worldwide data is difficult to obtain, U.S. air travel generally expanded at rates of 10-15% per year from the 1930s through 9/11. If we assume that U.S. air traffic represents about a third of the worldwide total (the U.S. share of global GDP, which is probably a reasonable proxy, has fairly consistently been between 26-28% during this period), we can estimate the number of deaths from violent passenger incidents per one billion passenger boardings. By this measure, the 2000s tied the 1990s for being the safest on record, each of which were about six times safer than any previous decade. About 22 passengers per one billion enplanements were killed as the result of VPIs during the 2000s; this compares with a rate of about 191 deaths per billion enplanements during the 1960s.

But 9/11, of course, did not just kill people on the planes. Rather, nearly 3,000 of our citizens were murdered, the vast majority of whom were literally just going about their business in New York City or Arlington. If we include ground deaths in the total, we get a rather different picture, with the 2000s in fact being the worst decade on record.

As much as anything, however, this speaks to the tragic uniqueness of 9/11. Since the beginning of commercial air travel, a total of about 6,500 people have been killed as the result of violent passenger Incidents -- nearly half of those, or 2,995, came on 9/11 itself.

. . . 12 out of every 13 innocent deaths on 9/11 were to people on the ground. And even if the deaths at the WTC and the Pentagon are included, the rate of deaths from violent passenger Incidents during the 2000s qualifies as relatively "normal", comparable to or slightly lower than the death rates in the 1940s through the 1980s.

. . . This is not necessarily meant to be interpreted as a call for laxer airport security. The mitigation of deaths from violent passenger incidents can just as easily be read as a success story, of sorts . . .

It does seem to me, however, the singular focus on Al Qaeda is obscuring an understanding of the bigger picture. From the very dawn of commercial air travel, it was inevitable that some idiots -- whether acting alone or in concert -- might think it a bright idea to hijack or detonate passenger jets. We might not think of all such villains as "terrorists". There are a number of stories from the 1950s and the 1960s, believe it or not, of people blowing up commercial jets to collect life insurance.


Anonymous Tom Puckett said...

Collecting insurance was Van Heflin's motivation as the bomber in the first Airport (1970) movie.

January 11, 2010 8:07 AM  

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