Flying? Blood clots still a bigger risk

SIOBHAN DOWNES
Last updated 15:00 25/07/2014

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You're still twice as likely to die from a blood clot while flying than a plane crash, despite a spate of deadly accidents, a statistician says.

While International Air Transport Association (IATA) figures showed last year was one of the safest years on record for flying, this year looks likely to be among the most deadly in recent times.

In the past week, 298 were killed when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine. Another 48 died on a TransAsia Airways flights caught in a storm in Taiwan, and 116 are feared dead after an Air Algerie flight crashed in eastern Mali.

Add to that the 239 presumed dead on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, and the deaths of 18 on a Nepal Airlines flight earlier this year, and the total is 719, the worst since 2010 when 786 fatalities were recorded.

But University of Auckland professor of biostatistics Thomas Lumley said people should look at the number of fatal accidents, rather than the number of fatalities, as this number remains much more stable from year to year.

While there were only 210 deaths in 2013 compared to the five-year average of 517, there were 16 fatal accidents, which was not such a dramatic decrease when compared to the average of 19 fatal accidents. 

The variation in the total of fatalities was partly due to the different sizes of planes involved, and partly due to luck in survivable accidents, Lumley said.

There was unlikely to be an increase in the probability of dying from a plane crash after this week's events, as the ways the crashes have occurred were unlikely to continue, he said.

"For example, with the Malaysia Airlines crash [MH17], other airlines aren't going to be flying over that bit of Ukraine, and they'll probably be more careful about flying over other areas where there's potential military activity.

"In that way, it's almost safer than it was before, because they've eliminated that. People know that you don't want to fly over Ukraine now."

IATA figures showed there were 0.5 fatal accidents per million flights.

But a University of Otago study from 2006 showed the risk of having a fatal pulmonary embolism was 1.3 per million, for air travel of more than eight hours' duration.

"That's a bigger risk than terrorists or engine failures, but it's less 'scary'," Lumley said.

"It happens more often than crashes, it's just it happens to one person at a time, so you don't notice - it's not in the news."

Overall, it was simply a "very unlucky week" for air travel, he said.

"But there's no reason that future weeks should be unlucky."

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IATA director general and CEO Tony Tyler today released a statement which said despite it being "a very sad week" for aviation, flying was safe.

Approximately 100,000 flights took to the sky and land without incident everyday.

"In 2013 more than three billion people flew and there were 210 fatalities," he said.

"Regrettably, we have surpassed that number already this year. But even so, getting on an aircraft is still among the safest activities that one can do."

- Stuff

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