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Research Themes

Theme 1: Safety and Security

In 1997, the US Air Transport Association held a conference titled "Safety: The Foundation of Our Business." That this title was not a mere slogan has been clearly demonstrated since 9/11, when a catastrophe deeply weakened the foundations of the industry. At this point, achieving a strong record in safety and security is fundamental to airline operations, and thus playing a major role in that endeavor is fundamental to our project. We focus on two general questions: "How safe is it to fly?" and "What can be done to make flying safer?" Our achievements in this area include:

Performing Internationally Recognized Analyses about the Mortality Risk of Passenger Air Travel: Our studies on this subject have appeared in such journals as Flight Safety Digest, the flagship publication of the Flight Safety Foundation. Moreover, our statistical indicators of passenger risk are used very widely: one of them appears at the FAA website at the very start of its aviation-safety link, while another has been described by TIME magazine as "the standard statistic" about the safety of air travel. Programs to help "fearful flyers" have used our analyses to provide perspective about the astounding rarity of fatal aviation accidents.

Recognizing Threats to Aviation Safety Before Tragedies Made Them Apparent: In August 2001, one of our project members wrote that "Certain aerial dangers that were practically absent from the First World in the 1990's might be poised for a resurgence: terrorism, mid-air collisions, and ground collisions." (Barnett, 2001) Alas, this "prophecy" has already been vindicated: 9/11 occurred one month later while, in October 2001, a ground collision in Milan killed 118 people. And, in the summer of 2002, a mid-air collision between two jets occurred over the Swiss-German border.

Performing Data Analyses about Runway Collisions that Were Central to FAA Decision-Making: Having synthesized data from various sources, we estimated that "runway collisions over the next two decades could take 700 lives among US airline passengers, and cause 200 serious injuries." Shocked but persuaded by this projection, FAA determined that 25 mid-sized airports should receive new state-of-the-art ground radars. It described this outcome as a "joint FAA/MIT decision."

Performing a Study about How Free-Flight Aerial Routings Could Affect the Risk of Mid-air Collisions: Using geometric probability and other concepts from Operations Research, we assessed what would happen to collision risk if, instead of flying within a network of prescribed aerial paths, planes flew straight-line routes from origin to destination. World Airport Week's story about our paper was titled "Free-Flight Study Could Become Pivotal in Aviation Infrastructure Debate. (2/13/01)"

Devising and Analyzing the Experiments About Positive Passenger Bag Match (PPBM) that Led Congress to Require PPBM as a Security Measure: Project team members led a study of PPBM involving eleven airlines, 8000 flights, and 750,000 passengers. The paper appeared in 2001, and played a prominent role in Congressional deliberations that led to the 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act. In that legislation, Congress in effect required US airlines to perform PPBM, and the measure was introduced on all US domestic flights on 1/18/02.

We continue to document the staggering successes of First-World airlines in preventing mishaps from turning into disasters. US airlines transported over 500 million passengers in 2002. The number of these passengers killed in aircraft accidents was zero. The day may soon be at hand when fear of aviation accidents might be as farfetched as fear of visiting the grocery store because the ceiling might collapse. But the same cannot be said of security risk. For that reason, we concentrate our efforts on minimizing the risk of terrorist and criminal attacks against aviation. Should the focus be on identifying those passengers (and others with access to airplanes/airports) who might be terrorists, and concentrating security screening on them? Or should attempts to single out "high-risk" people be viewed with wariness and skepticism, meaning that everyone should be subject to a high level of scrutiny?

Links to the various themes:

  1. Safety and Security
  2. Industry Structure and Competition
  3. Labor Relations & Human Resources
  4. Infrastructure
  5. Alternative Business Models
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