Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Airplane Terrorism, Data-Driven Edition

I’m just off a flight from London back to the United States and I’m hesitant to attempt to think while jet-lagged.  I’ll have some more thoughts and first-hand observations once my head clears, however.

In the meantime, Nate Silver has broken down the risk of terror attacks on airplanes so I don’t have to.  Summarizing his points, the odds of a terror attack can be variously expressed as:

  • one terrorist incident per 16,553,385 departures
  • one terrorist incident per 11,569,297,667 miles flown. This distance is equivalent to 1,459,664 trips around the diameter of the Earth, 24,218 round trips to the Moon, or two round trips to Neptune.
  • one incident per 3,105 years airborne
  • the odds of being on given departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. By contrast, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are about 1 in 500,000
  • One point that Nate mentions up front, but doesn’t elaborate on, is that these are the odds of being on a plane that’s attacked.   A third of those attacks failed and no one but the terrorist was injured (Richard Reid and the latest Christmas Day attack).

    That’s right, you are twenty times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be on a plane that’s the target of an attack, and almost thirty times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed or injured in a terrorist attack.

    Pick your preferred typical comparison, but you’ll find that they’re all several orders of magnitude more likely than airline terrorism.