Charting the trends – our skies were much quieter in 2020, but flying still proved to be less safe… or was it?

1 April, 2021

The popular saying "lies, damned lies, and statistics" is a phrase describing the persuasive power of numbers, particularly the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments. But when it comes to statistics, the year 2020 will be one where the figures will be quickly forgotten.

We are now more than a year into the Coronavirus pandemic and that means the year-on-year comparisons of much of 2020 that showed calamitous declines in travel capacity and demand are now suddenly transitioning from significant negatives to healthy positives. They are all just numbers that without proper context around them mean very little.

Latest air safety data released by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) highlights this perfectly. While the skies above us were much quieter in 2020, it appears that they were less safe. IATA’s data shows the total number of accidents decreased from 52 in 2019 to 38 in 2020 and fatal accidents decreased from eight in 2019 to five in 2020. However, the all accident rate was 1.71 accidents per million flights. This is higher than the five-year (2016-2020) average rate which is 1.38 accidents per million flights.

Although these statistics show the industry did take a step back on performance in 2020, it doesn’t mean that air travel is getting more dangerous. Flying remains a safe form of transport. In fact, that same IATA dataset within its 2020 Safety Report shows that the fatality risk when flying remained unchanged in 2020 when compared to the five-year average.

With a fatality risk of 0.13 for air travel, on average, a person would have to travel by air every day for 461 years before experiencing an accident with at least one fatality. On average, a person would have to travel every day for 20,932 years to experience a 100% fatal accident.

When it comes to the 2020 data, the severe reduction in flight numbers “magnified the impact of each accident when we calculate rates,” says IATA’s outgoing director general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac. However, the numbers don’t lie, and Mr de Juniac notes this will not be allowed to become a trend. “We will have even sharper focus on safety during this period of reduced operations and as flight schedules are rebuilt when the world reopens,” he says.

The standout statistic in all of this is that last year, an estimated 1.795 billion passengers flew safely on about 22 million flights in 2020, but that as a headline does not get attention!

They say ‘a picture paints a thousand words’. In this regular section CTC – Corporate Travel Community offers a graphical insight into a key industry observation or trend. Continuing the air safety theme we look at the IATA 2020 Safety Report and look at the total number of fatalities (line and vertical right axis) and the number of fatal accidents (stacked bar and vertical left axis) split between aircraft propulsion. This is a classic example of a statistics snapshot purely highlighting the numbers and without wider context. The data is not being normalised by the aircraft flight count; therefore alone it suggests 2020 was a very strong year for air safety. This could be defined as a classic example of the "lies, damned lies, and statistics" observation.

This regular section also now incorporates and expands on the charts produced in the 2020 air capacity series ‘Coronavirus Statistics Snapshot’. These are based on an analysis of OAG schedule data and include a weekly look at how the pandemic is impacting global flight levels in the world’s largest markets; a week-on-week and year-on-year comparison of flight departures by geographical region and a look at how weekly capacity is trending: the latter comparing levels to 2020 and also to the 2019 baseline performance.


Departure frequencies up +2.43% versus last week; up+15.03% versus 2020 and down -41.79% versus 2019.

Seat capacity up +3.87% versus last week; up +26.94% versus 2020 and down -42.83% versus 2019.

CHART: Week-on-week change in flight departures by region

CHART: Year-on-year weekly departure performance for world’s top 30 markets versus 2019

CHART: Year-on-year weekly departure performance for world’s top 30 markets versus 2020

CHART: Departure capacity trends with year-on-year performance

CHART: Departure capacity trends versus 2019