Are Private Jets Safer Than Commercial Airliners?

The Big Three auto companies say they are.

At a hearing of the House financial services committee last week, lawmakers scolded the CEOs of the Big Three auto companies for flying private jets to Washington, D.C., before requesting a bailout. A Chrysler spokeswoman responded that “business travel requires the highest standard of safety for all employees,” and CNN noted that the Big Three “have policies requiring their CEOs to travel in private jets for safety reasons.” Despite these concerns, General Motors announced yesterday that CEO Richard Wagoner will not use a private aircraft when he returns to the capital for another round of meetings next week. (Ford and Chrysler have yet to announce their plans.) Are private jets really safer than commercial airliners?

Is flying in a private jet really safer than going commercial?

No. From Jan. 1, 2008, to Oct. 24, 2008, there were only 16 major accidents on commercial planes—including flights carrying passengers and those carrying cargo. Seven of these accidents resulted in zero fatalities while the biggest crash of the year killed 154 people (Spanair Flight JK5022 on a Boeing MD-82). During the same time period, there were 10 major accidents on business jets. There were no fatalities on three of these flights and eight (the largest number) on East Coast Jets Flight 81, which crashed at Owatonna Airport in Minnesota.

Expressed in terms of flight hours, the accident rate is nearly identical. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there were .135 accidents per 100,000 flight hours on commercial air carriers in 2007. The NTSB breaks up business flights into two categories—”corporate” (the aircraft must be flown by a two-person, professional crew) and “business” (two-person, professional crew not required). In 2007, the corporate accident rate was .103 per 100,000 hours, and the business rate was .72 per 100,000 hours.

Of course, the Big Three may be worried about more than mechanical trouble or pilot error. When the Chrysler spokeswoman said that “business travel requires the highest standard of safety,” she likely also meant security. It’s true that, if they travel on private jets, CEOs can bring along security guards with handguns and get picked up in SUVs on the tarmac instead of rubbing shoulders with disgruntled or recently laid-off employees at the airport. But the risk level at, say, Reagan National Airport is low for Richard Wagoner: Few people know what he looks like, and American airports are patrolled by police.

One way in which a private jet might be considered more safe is in regard to information security. Even in first class there’s no real privacy. On a private aircraft, CEOs can discuss proprietary information with colleagues or partners and keep in constant contact with their headquarters.

The real benefits of a private jet, naturally, are convenience and efficiency. Getting from Detroit to D.C. is pretty easy, but getting from Detroit to a GM factory in Quito, Ecuador, could be more of a hassle. If a senior executive needs to travel to a far-away affiliate in a town with little or no airline service or to make multiple stops in one day, a private jet seems less frivolous.

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Explainer thanks Dan Hubbard of the National Business Aviation Association, Emily McGee of the Flight Safety Foundation, and Kent Moyer of the World Protection Group.