Can “Unsafe” Planes Save Lives?

Today’s Wall Street Journal (online version by subscription only) contains a rather shocking chart on page 1 showing enormous rates of air travel fatalities in Africa and the Middle East. While North America — actually, if I’m reading correctly, just the U.S. and Canada — has almost half of the world’s flights, we experience only about one fatal accident per 10 million flights. In Africa, the Journal reports, almost one out of 300,000 flights involves a fatal accident. This sounds like a lot until one realizes that Africa has only 1.3 million flights a year. This means about four fatal accidents per year.

The Journal doesn’t zone in on this statistic. Instead, it lays the blame on the growth of “flags of convenience” for airlines: countries that will certify just about anything as flightworthy. The growth stems from First World airlines’ drive to modernize their fleets and enormous leftover supplies of jetliners from the former Soviet Union. The article implicity calls for better, tighter regulation. Insofar as the companies the Journal investigates involve themselves in supporting terrorists and supplying arms, this might be a good idea.

But I have my doubts about the need for action in commercial aviation. Any death is tragic but I think there’s a good chance that the more-or-less unregulated airlines are saving lives. According to the World Health Organization, (see page 4 of the PDF), nearly a quarter of the world’s injury deaths stem from motor vehicle travel. In Africa, the overal death toll in much higher. WHO’s statistics don’t all line up but it appears that Africa as a whole has over 250,000 traffic deaths EACH YEAR. Even if each “fatal accident” involves the crash of a fully loaded 747 (and they do not) this would mean only about 2,500 deaths per year. In fact, I’d guess that the number of yearly air travel deaths in Africa is closer to 250. Add in the much greater chances of being caught in armed conflict while driving a significant distance in many parts of Africa and it’s highly likely that “dangerous” African airlines save lots of lives when they reduce driving.

Of course, one can only take this logic so far: In 2006 the U.S. had about 45,000 automobile-related deaths and over a million auto accidents as compared to one serious commercial aviation accident that killed 49. For a variety of reasons, this one accident is still a cause for concern and investigation. To begin with, the 8 or so people million people in the Baltimore-Washington area are likely take more car trips per day than all U.S. airlines fly in a year. If even one out of these 16 million or more trips (all of Northern America has about 13 million flights per year) caused an accident that resulted in 50 deaths, many people would be understandably scared to drive. Thus, there are rational reasons to be worried about even small numbers of air travel deaths.

In addition, on a very poor continent with terrible transportation networks, it’s likely that a fair number of airplane trips simply would not be taken at all by any means if it weren’t for cheap, uninspected airplanes. Obviously, people who do not travel at all will not die as a result of traveling. In the long run, African countires and airlines will likely find it advantagous to administer higher standards of safety than they do now. For the moment, however, I’m not convinced that public policy ought to do anything about the air safety situation in African commercial aviation.