The Attempted Attack, In Perspective

Nate Silver, right as always:

Over the past decade, there have been, by my count, six attempted terrorist incidents on board a commercial airliner than landed in or departed from the United States: the four planes that were hijacked on 9/11, the shoe bomber incident in December 2001, and the NWA flight 253 incident on Christmas.
The Bureau of Transportation Statistics provides a wealth of statistical information on air traffic. For this exercise, I will look at both domestic flights within the US, and international flights whose origin or destination was within the United States. I will not look at flights that transported cargo and crew only. I will look at flights spanning the decade from October 1999 through September 2009 inclusive (the BTS does not yet have data available for the past couple of months).
Over the past decade, according to BTS, there have been 99,320,309 commercial airline departures that either originated or landed within the United States. Dividing by six, we get one terrorist incident per 16,553,385 departures.
These departures flew a collective 69,415,786,000 miles. That means there has been one terrorist incident per 11,569,297,667 mles 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.
Assuming an average airborne speed of 425 miles per hour, these airplanes were aloft for a total of 163,331,261 hours. Therefore, there has been one terrorist incident per 27,221,877 hours airborne. This can also be expressed as one incident per 1,134,245 days airborne, or one incident per 3,105 years airborne.
There were a total of 674 passengers, not counting crew or the terrorists themselves, on the flights on which these incidents occurred. By contrast, there have been 7,015,630,000 passenger enplanements over the past decade. Therefore, 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. This means that you could board 20 flights per year and still be less likely to be the subject of an attempted terrorist attack than to be struck by lightning.

I’m just upset that I’m going to have to wait in line for hours before I fly to Vegas next month, all for essentially no reason. I mean, the Nigerian guy last week didn’t even get on a plane in the U.S.

3 thoughts on “The Attempted Attack, In Perspective

  1. Dan

    So what you’re saying is, once we have the technology, one out of every two round trip flights to Neptune are likely to be hijacked.
    That’s it! I’m NOT flying to Neptune!

  2. Jordan

    “six attempted terrorist incidents on board a commercial airliner”
    Wait a minute. First of all, those four planes on 9/11 were not “attempts”. Over 3000 people were murdered that day.
    Second of all, there have been many more “attempts” than we know about, let alone the ones we do know about that Nate Silver ignores (like the reason we can’t have more than three ounces of liquid onboard an aircraft).
    This threat is very real, and should be taken seriously. Doing the math is not going to make these monsters go away.

  3. Jeremy

    Both my parents and I flew within 2 days of the attempted Christmas attack, and there were no changes in security at MSP.
    Most changes (if any) are going to be foreign-originating flights that enter the US, not domestic ones.


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