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When people try to calm others who are afraid of flying some will claim it's more likely you will be killed by lightning than dying on a flight. Is there any truth in this?

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    "...some will claim it's more likely you will be killed by lightning than dying on a flight." You're right, they do, but what a ridiculous approach! One might as well try to convince someone who's claustrophobic that an MRI is quite safe. Of course it's safe, but it's still an awful experience for the claustrophobic patient, and it has nothing to do with safety. – Don Branson Aug 12 '16 at 17:19
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    @Dronz - I stopped seeing outdoors as being a difference-maker after lightning went through our son's bedroom. :) – Don Branson Aug 12 '16 at 19:30
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    Your chances of dying on a flight downed by lightning are close (but not quite) zero. – Spehro Pefhany Aug 12 '16 at 20:15
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    mandatory xkcd: xkcd.com/795 – njzk2 Aug 14 '16 at 4:42
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it belongs to Skeptics.SE – JonathanReez Oct 23 '16 at 16:23
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The answer is: it depends on where you are, what aircraft you're flying on, how frequently you fly on them, and how often you stand next to tall objects in the middle of a field during thunderstorms (among other factors.)

If you're talking about the recent average chance of dying in a plane crash on a U.S. mainline air carrier per year vs. the recent average chance of getting killed by lightning in the U.S. per year, then, yes, you're far more likely to be killed by lightning. A couple of dozen people are killed annually by lightning in the U.S., but there have been no passenger deaths at all on any U.S. mainline carrier due to an aviation incident (i.e. not counting "passenger had a heart attack at 30,000 feet") since late 2001 [source].

On the other hand, if you're referring to flying daily on a helicopter with a shoddy safety record in a mountainous region where the climate also never results in any convective available potential energy, then you're much more likely to die in an aviation crash.


Real conclusion: Without additional constraints, this is not an especially meaningful thing to compare. If you simply don't fly, your chance of dying as an occupant in an aircraft crash is 0%. If you spend all of your time in a place with no CAPE, your chance of dying in a lightning strike is also (almost) 0%.* On the other hand, if you're flying frequently on a private aircraft with shoddy maintenance or you have a habit of standing near tall objects in the middle of large, open fields during thunderstorms, you'd best have good life insurance.

* There are a few non-thunderstorm possible causes of lightning, such as volcanic eruptions, but these probably represent a statistically-insignificant number of lightning deaths.

  • Your answer is a little misleading as you've called out only US Mainline aircraft, which is only a percentage of (commerical) flights in the US. There have been over 100 deaths from regular scheduled airlines in the US since 2002. Still less than lightning, but more than zero! – Doc Aug 12 '16 at 19:43
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    +1 for "how often you stand next to tall objects in the middle of a field during thunderstorms" – njzk2 Aug 12 '16 at 19:55
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    apparently the only reported crash with fatalities is en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Reno_Air_Races_crash where the pilot and 10 spectators were killed. So it seems it is more dangerous to look at planes than to fly in one. – njzk2 Aug 12 '16 at 20:24
  • @Doc What time period are you talking about? The page I linked here shows only 139 passenger deaths and 12 crew deaths total on U.S.-flagged scheduled airlines since late 2001 with the most recent of those over 7 years ago. Its criteria are aircraft that have the capacity to carry at least 10 passengers (regardless of whether 10 pax are actually on board.) Maybe the number you mention includes sightseeing helicopters and Alaskan bush pilots or something? Even then, that seems really high. – reirab Aug 12 '16 at 20:37
  • @pnuts Scroll down a bit and you'll see that number is representative of the entire season for the last few years. Also, we're near the end of the season where lightning deaths are most common. The average year over the past 10 only had 4 lightning deaths after August. The vast majority of them have been in June, July, and August. – reirab Aug 12 '16 at 21:22
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According to this ATAG report there were 37.4M commercial flights in 2014. There were 20 A1 accidents per Aviation Safety. So if you randomly pick a flight, your chances of boarding one which will get into a hull loss accident is one in two million.

According to the NOAA between 1959-1994 on average 90 people were killed by lightning. The 1959 population of the USA was 178M, 1994 population was 260M, taking the mean the chances of killed by lightning is 1:2.43M -- about the same as the flights.

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Yes and no. (but mostly yes)

Considering the USA, because it is easier to find statistics, during 1 year (1999. ok, that's old, but in the newer report I could not find exact numbers).

  • Lightnings According to @chx's answer, ~90 people are killed by lightning every year.
  • Flights 691 people died in a plane accident. Source National Transportation Safety Board page 30. However, 628 died in private aircrafts. Apparently the remaining 33 died in commercial flights.

So yes, if you consider commercial flights, which is probably the common meaning, but no if you consider all flights.

That could be very different in other countries.

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    As @SteveJessop commented to chx's answer, there is no common unit between the statistics. "[W]hy pick one year as the time period for being struck by lightning? Why not choose the average duration of a flight, or the average length of a person's life? The reason the time period is so arbitrary, despite that choice being capable of flipping the answer to the other way around, is that you're comparing quantities with different dimensions (deaths/person/year vs accidents/flight)." – Dronz Aug 12 '16 at 19:15
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    @Dronz there is a common unit in those statistics: 1 year In the USA. Every year, there are 90 people killed by lightning, and in 1999 there were 33 people killed in commercial flights. I am comparing deaths/year in both cases. – njzk2 Aug 12 '16 at 19:29
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    I changed the formulation to make it a little clearer that I am comparing the same thing. I had the same though as SteveJessop, which is why I added this answer. – njzk2 Aug 12 '16 at 19:31
  • Picking an arbitrary year at random isn't especially meaningful, though, unless that year is actually representative of most years, which, in this case, it isn't. For the mainline U.S. carriers, there hasn't been a single passenger death since 2001. – reirab Aug 12 '16 at 19:36
  • @reirab I know. That's the only report I could find with actual numbers of casualties. If you have a trusted source for that number, I'd be happy to change the answer to reflect that. – njzk2 Aug 12 '16 at 19:54

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