How Deadly Is the Airline Industry?

At least the TSA lines are short now.Jack Kurtz/ZUMA

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Here’s a headline in the LA Times today:

The accompanying story asks some good questions about how the airline industry is handling COVID-19, but over the course of nearly 2,000 words it doesn’t once tell us what we really need to know: is this a high number? Here’s a very rough guess:

  • The BLS estimates there are about 400,000 airline workers (pilots, flight attendants, air traffic controllers, etc.) in the US. This means that 15 deaths comes to 0.0037 percent of the total workforce.
  • There are 170 million working-age folks in the United States. Of those, about 7,000 have died of COVID-19. A little less than half of those deaths have been in the past nine days, so figure 3,000 deaths or so. That’s 0.0017 percent.

This is just the vaguest kind of horseback guesswork, but it suggests that airline workers might be dying at twice the rate of other workers. Then again, there’s this:

An American Airlines gate agent at Los Angeles International Airport, an aircraft mechanic at a Tulsa, Okla., airport, a baggage handler at Dallas-Fort Worth and a food services manager at JFK airport in New York are all counted among the recent dead. And the human toll of air travel is mounting.

We’re including baggage handlers and food services folks? That might double the total number of workers, in which case the death rate in the airline industry would be entirely average. Then again, I don’t know how many airline workers have been furloughed. Maybe there are only 200,000 left these days, in which case we’re back to airline workers dying at twice the rate of other workers. Oh, and the count of deaths could be way off on both sides.

The point here isn’t whether my guesswork is accurate. It could easily be off by a factor of two or more. The point is that you have to at least ask the question and get some experts to weigh in. If you don’t, you have no idea if there’s really a story here in the first place. If, in fact, it turns out that the fatality rate in the airline industry is just average, then there’s no reason it should affect whether planes are still flying.¹

¹There are still plenty of other reasons to argue that planes shouldn’t be flying—wasted fuel, etc.—but COVID-19 deaths wouldn’t be one of them.

TIME IS RUNNING OUT!

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and it's truly crunch time: About 15 percent of our yearly online giving usually comes in during the final week of the year, and in "No Cute Headlines or Manipulative BS," we explain why we simply can't afford to come up short right now.

The bottom line: Corporations and powerful people with deep pockets will never sustain the type of journalism Mother Jones exists to do. And advertising or profit-driven ownership groups will never make time-intensive, in-depth reporting viable.

That's why donations big and small make up 74 percent of our budget this year. There is no backup to keep us going, no alternate revenue source, no secret benefactor. If readers don’t donate, we won’t be here. It's that simple.

And if you can help us out with a donation right now, all online gifts will be matched thanks to an incredibly generous matching gift pledge.

payment methods

TIME IS RUNNING OUT!

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and it's truly crunch time: About 15 percent of our yearly online giving usually comes in during the final week of the year, and in "No Cute Headlines or Manipulative BS," we explain why we simply can't afford to come up short right now.

The bottom line: Corporations and powerful people with deep pockets will never sustain the type of journalism Mother Jones exists to do. And advertising or profit-driven ownership groups will never make time-intensive, in-depth reporting viable.

That's why donations big and small make up 74 percent of our budget this year. There is no backup to keep us going, no alternate revenue source, no secret benefactor. If readers don’t donate, we won’t be here. It's that simple.

And if you can help us out with a donation right now, all online gifts will be matched thanks to an incredibly generous matching gift pledge.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate