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Is 2014 one of the worst years in civil aviation history?

It's been a bad year for flying. An Air Algérie plane crashed early on Thursday, July 24th, one day after a TransAsia Airways flight crash-landed in Taiwan, killing 48. A week before that, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 with 298 people on board was downed over eastern Ukraine.

Is 2014 turning into the worst year ever for civil aviation? It is, by at least one measure – the number of fatalities compared to the number of accidents.

A history of airline fatalities

As of July 23, this year became the deadliest since 2010. (For the purposes of this comparison, the extraordinary events of Sept. 11, 2001 are not included.) And it's one of the worst ever when the ratio of deaths to total accidents is considered. The greater trend has been toward a steady decrease in the number of fatalities over time. In the 1970s, there wasn’t a single year where deaths dipped below 1,000 – for comparison, in the past decade, fatalities have only risen above 1,000 once, in 2005.

Number of accidents and fatalities, 1950–2014

SOURCE: Aviation Safety Network

How likely are you to be in an airplane accident?

In the early days of commercial aviation, crashes were far more common. Much like the history of the automobile, it took decades for airlines and aircraft manufacturers to learn from past mistakes and build increasingly sophisticated safety features into their aircraft. With over 30 million commercial airline flights every year, fatalities are an unfortunate reality, albeit an increasingly unlikely one: today, your chances of being in an airplane accident are one in several million.

Chance of being in an airplane accident vs. number of commercial flights, 1973–2012

SOURCE: Aviation Safety Network

Fewer accidents, but more fatalities

2014 has so far seen far fewer accidents than the average – 11 accidents, compared to 2013’s 29. But this year’s accidents have also been far more deadly. 2013’s accidents claimed 265 lives, yet this year, 644 lives have been lost, over two and a half times more victims in a third of the accidents. Admittedly, 2013 was a relatively “good” year, with the lowest number of fatalities since 1950. But 2014 is still exceptional, particularly in regards to the number of deaths per accident.

Deaths per accident, 1950–2014

SOURCE: Aviation Safety Network

The deadliest airliner crash in history

On August 12, 1985, Japan Airlines Flight 123 – carrying 524 passengers and crew – underwent explosive decompression at 24,000 feet, blowing the rear vertical stabilizer off and cutting off the plane’s hydraulic maneuvering systems. Pilots struggled to regain control, but ultimately the Boeing 747 crashed into a mountain in Japan’s Gunma prefecture. Only 4 people survived. To this day, it remains the deadliest single-airplane disaster in history.

Troops sift through the wreckage of Japan Airlines Flight 123 on August 13, 1985. REUTERS

Airplane accident and fatality data was sourced from Aviation Safety Network. The data depicted above does not include fatalities or accidents as a result of hijackings, including the hijackings and crashes on September 11, 2001.

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