2014 has not been a particularly lucky year for airlines of Malaysia.
Malaysia Airlines reported two catastrophic incidents; after the last one, when Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine in July, average weekly bookings declined by more than 30%, with numerous flight cancellations just after the disaster. This happened despite the evident uncorrelated causes of the two accidents. Academic studies have indeed found that fatal accident shift passengers’ demand away from the airline involved in the crash.
Does this make any sense? Or are we just driven by the same biases that make us conclude that it’s safer for our child to play with other kids next to a swimming pool rather than visiting a friend whose dad is a gun collector? (For the record, the previous conclusion would be wrong: Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in a chapter of Freakonomics tell us that our children are roughly 100 times more likely to drawn in a swimming pool than being shot in a gunplay). Perhaps, we are driven by what Daniel Kahneman calls availability heuristic: when evaluating a specific airline, we use a mental shortcut and rely on immediate examples (what is more available to our minds than the recent crash the media bombarded us with information on?).
Nate Silver, a statistician, used data to show if all those people who cancelled their reservations after the shooting down of Flight MH17 made a rational choice or acted using what Kahneman calls System 1 (the intuitive, emotional and sometimes lazy side of our brains). He found out that people used System 1 in crowds. He based his study on the Aviation Safety Network’s database and analysed safety records for major commercial airlines over the past 30 years. He first studied how predictable fatalities by airline are; his sample includes all crashes regardless of their causes, even though for some the airline is more culpable than for others. He then breaks the period down into two halves, 1985 – 1999 and 2000 – 2014. He looks for a correlation in crash rates between the two periods, which would mean that crashes are more probable for certain airlines and therefore, to a certain extent, persistent. He finds that overall such a correlation does not exist for most of the sample, excluding a few cases such as China Airlines. Fatalities by airline are highly unpredictable.
However, fatal crashes are a rare event per se, and incidents in general can still tell us something about an airline; Silver therefore increases the sample size including all incidents. In this case, he finds that incidents by airline are slightly predictable. In particular, Pakistan International Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines and to a lesser extent Russia’s Aeroflot have had a persistently high rate of incidents. Silver then constructs an airline’s “safety score” and finds that first-world airlines have fewer incidents. He concludes by saying that as a general rule, if you insist on minimizing the risk of being involved in an incident, you should avoid airlines from developing countries; in fact, “if you want to predict an airline’s future rate of accidents, you’re best off looking at its home country’s GDP and largely ignoring its track record”. A study from 2004 also found that financially weak airlines may be more likely to pursue riskier strategies and tend to experience more mishaps. If you want to delve into data from the last 22 years, FlightRisk on BBC Future is a collection of information on fatal commercial passenger plane incidents since 1993.
Overall though, commercial airline travel is an extremely safe transport system. With more than 30 million commercial flights every year, the risk of being involved in a crash is still incredibly low and does not increase after a recent disaster.
So, am I flying Malaysia Airlines again? Of course.>