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Are Commercial Plane Crashes Common? The Irrational Has the Answers

Behavioral science professor Alec Mercer investigates whether a deadly plane crash was due to a suicidal pilot on the latest episode of The Irrational.

By Jax Miller

A fear of flying is considered one of the most common phobias in the United States, but, as noted in The Irrational, those fears are (yes, yes) somewhat irrational.

How to Watch

Watch The Irrational on NBC and Peacock

In Episode 3 of The Irrational, it was all hands on deck  when a commercial airliner crashed into a wooded area, leaving about half of its passengers dead. Behavioral science professor Alec Mercer (Jesse L. Martin) was called to the scene when officials began investigating whether the crash was a deliberate act by the pilot.

“We need help figuring out his state of mind,” implored F.B.I. Agent Marisa Clark (Maahra Hill).

Are Alec Mercer’s assessments on plane crashes accurate?

Alec asked his research assistant Phoebe (Molly Kunz) what her estimate was for the number of commercial airline crashes there had been in the past decade. Her guess of 20 suggested to Alec that she had a fear of flying, also known as aerophobia.

“Along with roughly 40 percent of the population,” Phoebe responded.

According to Alec, there have been zero commercial airline crashes in the United States in the past 10 years, and technically, that is correct.

Rizwan appears outdoors looking off to the side.

However, what Alec didn’t consider were how many plane accidents (on the ground) resulted in deaths, but even that number was very low, according to the Safety Record of U.S. Air Carriers by Airlines for America. In those reports, there was a total of just two fatalities: one in 2018 and one in 2019, representing about .01 deaths per 100,000 departures from 225 accidents between 2013 and 2021.

In 2022, the most recent report by the International Air Transport Association (I.A.T.A.), the fatality risk lessened to .11 from .23 the previous year.

What does that mean?

“The industry 2022 fatality risk of 0.11 means that on average, a person would need to take a flight every day for 25,214 years to experience a 100% fatal accident,” stated the I.A.T.A.

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The most recent commercial flight disaster in the United States happened in 2009, when Continental Flight 3407 crashed into a house near Buffalo, New York, killing 49 passengers and one person on the ground, according to CNBC. An investigation found pilot error (fatigue and lack of training) as the crash’s probable cause.

However, the crash prompted stricter regulations, such as mandatory rest and six times more flying experience, making air travel safer than ever.

There hasn’t been a single fatal crash since, and with The Federal Aviation Administration (F.A.A.) servicing 45,000 flights (and 2.9 million airline passengers) per day in the United States, your odds are very good that you won’t die in a commercial airline crash.

Is pilot suicide common?

While investigating whether there was reason to believe The Irrational’s pilot intentionally downed the plane, Alec’s trusted researcher, Rizwan (Arash DeMaxi), noted that pilot suicide was the second most common cause of plane crashes, with eight cases between 2002 and 2013.

Murder-suicide was indeed found to be the second most common reason behind commercial plane crashes between 2011 and 2020,  per a Bloomberg report. However, since determining a person’s state of mind after the fact could prove difficult, it might even be the number one leading cause of commercial airline crashes.

Jace Richards, Marisa, and Alec Mercer standing together outdoors.

For example, while the March 2022 China Eastern disaster took 132 lives, it has not been made official as an intentional act despite multiple reports. If so, it could tip the scales so that suicide was the leading cause of commercial plane crashes.

Murder-suicide accounted for the 2015 Germanwings Flight 9525 crash that left 150 people dead in the French mountains and was possibly behind the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and its 239 passengers. Reports also factor in terrorism, such as the devastating 9-11 attacks on American soil.  

Studies show pilot error (though not intentional) remains the number one reason for aviation accidents, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (N.T.S.B.). Causes could include poor visibility and mechanical misjudgment, but not due to the plane’s mechanics.

Federal regulations exist to ensure pilots are well-trained (and well-rested) while maintaining necessary licensure, such as medical exams and recorded flight time. And, again, there has not been a commercial airline disaster in America in more than 14 years.

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As you might have guessed, the suicide theory featured in The Irrational will be challenged.

Is flying really safer than driving?

One point Mercer used to drive the point home on The Irrational was the probability of dying in a plane crash versus dying in an automobile accident.

“Do you have a fear of driving?” Alec asks.

Phoebe’s response is, “Not yet.”

According to Alec, there are 6 million car accidents per year, which matches the number of police-reported and non-fatal accidents in 2021, as documented by a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The 2021 data shows just over 6 million accidents, with nearly 43,000 fatalities that year.

“The chances of us dying to go see a plane crash are a thousand percent greater than dying in one,” Alec continued.

According to a 2017 Harvard study published by The New York Times, a person’s odds of dying in a plane crash are one in 11 million, while a person’s odds of dying in a car accident are one in 5,000. People are also more likely to die in a shark attack or being struck by lightning.

The I.A.T.A. reports flying is the safest form of long-distance transport across the world.

Watch The Irrational, airing Mondays at 10/9c on NBC and streaming the next day on Peacock.