Closely related: Do ships sink nowadays?

The first powered, heavier-than-air airplane flight was in 1903. The first death in an airplane crash occurred in 1908. Therefore for the first five years of the airplane, there were zero deaths per passenger mile in air travel. By this metric, air travel was as safe or safer than sea travel.

It’s my belief that air travel today also has fewer deaths per passenger mile than sea travel (but I could be wrong!).

Looking at deaths per passenger mile, has air travel always been safer than sea travel? If not, during what period(s) was sea travel safer?

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    Hello Travel.SE! This is my first question on this stack, please feel free to edit my question and tags as necessary.
    – Steve V.
    Jan 8, 2021 at 20:30
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    You need some volume of data for statistics to mean something. Your example about the first years of aviation is a good example of that. Another issue is the definition of "travel". Do some dudes on an inflatable raft count as "sea travel"? Do some dude falling off from a cliff count as "air travel"? In any case, if you can define the question better, I think it would be more adequate at History.
    – SJuan76
    Jan 8, 2021 at 21:05
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    I’m voting to close this question because without actual mortality statistics for air travel and sea travel during specific time periods, this question will generate only discussion and opinion, not an actual declarative answer. Jan 9, 2021 at 15:42

1 Answer 1


deaths per passenger mile

If you are looking at "safety", that's actually the wrong metric. People do die on airplanes and boats but the majority of these fatalities have natural causes.

If you look at accidental death's only, the numbers are really too small to make any meaningful statistical comparison. In the 5 years from 2014-2018 there was a total of 1 accident related fatality in all US domestic flights. source

A larger number of accidental deaths often occurs in a single event, which are extremely rare. This makes statistics even more meaningless. It just boils down to something like this:

  1. in a time period where a ship or ferry sank air travel appears to be "safer"
  2. In a time period where an aircraft crashed sea travel appears to be "safer"
  3. These events are so rare, that a statistical comparison is mostly meaningless

Both means of transportation are quite safe.

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