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Good news, travellers: The skies are getting safer

A British Airways aircraft lands at City Airport against a backdrop of the Canary Wharf financial district in London on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012.

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

This has been the safest year to board a plane since records have been kept, according to the results of a global study that the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) released in December.

That may not still the fluttering hearts of aviophobes or loosen the armrest death-grip of nervous flyers when there's turbulence . So let's put it a different way. As of the end of November, the IATA calculated that for every million flights in 2012, there were 2.14 "hull losses" (what you and I would call crashes).

That means flying is 44 times safer than driving in Canada. Still not good enough? Ponder this: That number is for all planes (jet and propeller) around the globe, whether the aircraft was built by Boeing or by some guy in his garage in Azerbaijan. Even when you take into account recent accidents in Nunavut, Kazakhstan and Moscow, the more relevant statistic for average North Americans flying on planes with Western-built jet engines is much lower – 11 times lower, in fact, clocking in at 0.19 crashes per million flights. So, if you were to take a flight every day from now on, odds are it would take you about 14,419 years to crash.

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Interestingly, this wasn't just some anomalously good year: It's the third year in a row IATA's been able to call the safest ever.

According to Guenther Matschnigg, IATA's head of safety, the good news is due to data collection technology finally catching up with aviation technology.

"With all the information we have now, we can look into where potential risks are," Matschnigg told The Globe and Mail in Geneva recently. "The more data we collect, the more accurate we are, and the more we can do about potential risk before something happens."

He says flight data recorders, better known as black boxes, provide detailed information from near misses that enables airlines to avoid those dangerous situations in future. The worldwide data is collected by an Ottawa company and then analyzed at the IATA head office in Montreal.

"The old flight data recorders, they were covering probably nine to 12 parameters, like altitude, speed, pitch and yaw. Today, you've got thousands of data, and all those can be analyzed. For example, I can know exactly the brake pressure a pilot uses during any landing. In the old days, you hit the brakes, that's it, then it stops. Or not."

In the study, IATA broke out the number of crashes among its 240 member airlines for the same period. They account for 84 per cent of all air traffic, and include companies from Air Canada and Lufthansa to Air Botswana and Yemenia. In short, every airline you're ever likely to fly with. That number was zero.

It's something to meditate on next time your eyes are screwed shut during takeoff.

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