The first aviation fatality from a powered aircraft came on September 17, 1908, when inventor Orville Wright crashed his aircraft, injured himself, and killed his passenger, Signal Corp Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge. Too often, with ingenuity and invention comes danger and death. That’s just the way things are when you’re trying to push the envelope.
Since the invention of the aircraft in 1903, planes have gotten bigger, faster, and stronger, and have become part of our everyday life. We take flight for granted, while just 100 years ago the idea seemed unfathomable. Further, sometimes we take these monstrous machines for granted. We all have friends who are deathly afraid of flying, but for most of us, it’s not a big deal.
That is because, when you look at the numbers of aviation fatalities, they really are surprisingly low. It’s true what they say, you're more likely to get into a car accident and die than a plane crash. Indeed, much more likely. See for yourself: These are the ten commercial airlines with the highest death toll, including only deaths in the planes themselves.
10 Saudia (~650 Fatalities)
Saudi Arabian Airlines, or Saudia, is located in Jeddah, the major western Saudi city, and has a fleet of 146 aircraft. These are mostly of the Airbus and Boeing variety. The airline is the third largest money-making airline in the Middle East, and they use four different hubs for operation.
During Saudia’s 70 years of operation (1945 to present), the airline has had 12 noted accidents and incidents, with the first non-fatal accident coming in 1959. On August 19, 1980, Saudia faced its fourth accident (first with fatalities) during Saudia Flight 163.
While at Riyadh airport, during takeoff, the cabin caught fire. The aircraft made an emergency landing back to Riyadh, but due to delays in evacuation, all 287 passengers and 14 crew on board were killed. This was one of the deadliest cabin-fire accidents in commercial aircraft history, and the deadliest accident by Saudia, until 16 years later. In 1996, Saudia Flight 763 had a mid-air collision with a Kazakhstan Airlines plane, killing all 349 people aboard both planes, and resulting in the world’s deadliest mid-air collision.
9 Korean Air (~717 Fatalities)
Korean Air is South Korea’s largest airline, with a fleet size of 155 aircraft. It was founded in 1946 as Korean National Airlines, and is located in Seoul. It is the world’s top-ranked international cargo airline. In 2012, it was voted Asia’s best airline by Business Traveler, and the company is a sponsor of the 2018 Winter Olympics.
On September 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines Flight 007, en route from New York City to Seoul, was shot down by a Soviet Su-15 interceptor in the Sea of Japan. All 269 passengers and crew were killed, including Georgia House Representative Lawrence McDonald. Flight data records were only released eight years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The event prompted the Reagan administration to allow the world to access the US military’s GNSS system, commonly known today as GPS.
Another crash in 1997, Flight 801 near Guam, caused 228 fatalities. During 1970 to 1999, Korean Air Lines had many fatal accidents, but they have not had any fatalities in the past 15 years.
8 China Airlines (~746 Fatalities)
China Airlines is the flag carrier of the Republic of China. It is located in Taiwan, has operated since 1959, and employs 11,000 people. China Airlines has three subsidiaries: Mandarin Airlines (domestic flights), China Airlines Cargo (fleet of freighter aircraft), and Tigerair Taiwan (low-cost carrier). Despite the size of the country, China Airlines only has a fleet of 81, with many accidents over the years (18).
The deadliest in China Airlines’ history came on April 26, 1994, on Flight 140, when pilots were making a routine landing to Nagoya Airport in Japan. The pilots accidentally raised the throttle position, and when trying to manually reduce the throttles, the autopilot caused the nose to pitch up sharply and crash. There were only seven survivors of the total 271 passengers and crew.
Another very deadly incident came just four years later, on CAL Flight 676 in 1998, when pilots crashed an Airbus A300 jetliner into a residential neighborhood when they missed an airstrip in Taiwan, due to fog. 204 people were killed. Just four years after that, in 2002, on CAL Flight 611, a Boeing 747 disintegrated in mid-air over the Taiwan Strait, killing all 225 and resulting in the deadliest aviation accident in Taiwan history.
7 Japan Airlines (~766 Fatalities)
Japan Airlines, founded in 1951, is the second largest airline in Japan, after All Nippon Airways. Its main hubs are located in Tokyo and Osaka, and the company has a fleet of 279 aircraft. The company became privatized in 1987, and then merged with Japan Air System in 2002, to become the sixth largest airline in the world in terms of passengers carried.
Japan Airlines unfortunately has its name associated with the deadliest single-aircraft accident in history, and the second-deadliest aviation accident in history. On Flight 123 from Tokyo International Airport to Osaka International Airport in 1985, a Boeing 747 suffered an explosive decompression just 12 minutes into the flight, killing 505 passengers and 15 crewmembers.
The incident occurred just 10 days after a deadly Delta Air Lines flight which killed 137 people, and 10 days before a British Airtours fire killed a further 55, making August 1985 the single deadliest month in commercial aviation. Japan Airlines has had 30 other accidents.
6 Air India (~817 Fatalities)
Air India is a company owned by the Government of India, and is the flag carrier of the country. It has a fleet size of 104 aircraft that serve 91 locations domestically and internationally. Air India was once the largest airline in India (market share of 60%), but it is now third, with a market share of 14%. An Air India plane was involved in the fifth-deadliest aviation accident in history.
On June 23, 1985, Air India Flight 182 was destroyed by a bomb, and subsequently crashed into the Atlantic Ocean’s Irish airspace. It was the first bombing of a Boeing 747, and the largest mass murder in Canadian history (resulting in the most expensive trial in Canadian history at $130 million). All 329 people on board were killed, and a Canadian national and member of a Sikh militant group, Inderjit Singh Reyat, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for building the bombs that exploded on Flight 182, as well as the bombing at the Narita Airport, which occurred at the same time.
Despite being around since 1930, Air India has only had nine recorded accidents. Still there have been numerous crashes with over 200 fatalities, such as Air India Flight 855, which crashed off the coast of Bombay in 1978 and killed all 213 passengers and crew. The most recent fatal crash came on May 22, 2010, when Air India Express Flight 812 overshot a runway, fell over a cliff, caught fire, and killed 158 people.
5 United Airlines (~1,174 Fatalities)
United Airlines is one of the oldest major airlines in the world. Founded in 1926 and headquartered in Chicago, it is the world’s most far-reaching airlines, with 373 destinations. United has a fleet of 691 aircraft, and the company employs 88,500 people.
United Airlines has been the face of many tragedies, with the most infamous being that of Flight 175 on September 11, 2001. The terrorist attack killed all 65 people aboard Flight 175, and the subsequent damage caused many more fatalities around the World Trade Center. At the same time, United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field in Pennsylvania while passengers attempted to regain control of the plane from terrorists. The crash killed all 44 passengers.
In 1960, there was a mid-air collision known as the Park Slope plane crash in New York, where a United Airliner collided with a TWA flight, killing all 128 people in both aircraft. At the time, the accident was the deadliest US commercial aviation disaster. Besides the three crashes mentioned here, United has had 28 other recorded crashes since being founded.
4 American Airlines (~1,465 Fatalities)
American Airlines is one of the largest domestic and international airlines in the world. It was founded in 1930, has a fleet of 964 aircraft, and serves 344 destinations. In 2013, AMR Corporation merged with US Airways Group after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and the new holding company, American Airlines Group, Inc became the largest airline in the world.
American Airlines flights have crashed more than 50 times in its 85 year history. The most recent and notorious came on September 11, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 11 was hijacked and crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing 92 in aircraft and an estimated 1,600 on-ground. Nearly simultaneously, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, killing 64 in aircraft and 125 in the Pentagon.
Just two months after the devastating attacks on 9/11, American Airlines Flight 587 was taking off on a routine passenger flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. Shortly after takeoff, the Airbus A300-600 crashed into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, killing all 260 people on board, and five on the ground. This was the second-deadliest incident to occur on US soil, after another American Airlines flight in 1979 (Flight 191) killed 273.
3 Pan Am (~1,532 Fatalities)
Pan American World Airways, or Pan Am, was the largest international air service in the US from 1927 until it ceased operations in 1991. The airline began as a mail and passenger service that operated between Key West, Florida, to Havana, Cuba, until it expanded worldwide. The airline was the unofficial flag carrier of the US, and was a cultural icon of the 20th century. The airline was also involved in many accidents until its bankruptcy in 1991.
A Pan Am plane was involved in the deadliest airplane collision of all time, known as the Tenerife Airport Disaster. On March 27, 1977, many planes were diverting to Los Rodeos Airport on the Spanish island of Tenerife, due to a bomb explosion at Gran Canaria Airport, and the fear of a second bomb. This created a rapid influx of arriving planes, and there was a thick fog on the runway. Two Boeing 747s - Pan Am Flight 1736, and KLM Flight 4805 - crashed into each other on the runway, killing 583 people in the two aircraft, out of 644 people.
On December 21, 1988, a Pan Am Boeing 747 named Clipper of the Seas was blown up with plastic explosives in its forward cargo hold. The aircraft crashed and all 270 people were killed, in what was known as the Lockerbie bombing. A Libyan intelligence officer was found guilty of 270 counts of murder, and years later, in 2003, Muammar Gaddafi accepted responsibility for the attack and paid compensation to the families of the victims, though he stated he did not order the attack.
2 Air France (~1,591 Fatalities)
Air France is a founding member of the SkyTeam global airline alliance, and is the French flag carrier and subsidiary of Air France-KLM Group. The airline was founded in 1933, and boasts a fleet of 235 aircraft. Air France has one of the highest accident rates of any airline, with around 90 since 1934, plus eight different hijackings between 1973 and 1994.
The deadliest crash in the airlines history came on June 1, 2009, when Air France Flight 447 entered an aerodynamic stall and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 passengers and crew. On two separate occasions in June, 1950 (12 and 14), Air France Douglas DC-4s crashed into the sea off Bahrain while landing, killing over 40 people in each occasion. Two years later, on April 29, 1952, an Air France plane was shot 89 times by Soviet MiGs, but everyone survived.
During Flight 139 on June 27, 1976, an Airbus A300 was hijacked by six people, demanding the plane be flown to Entebbe, Uganda. 155 non-Israeli and non-Jewish hostages were released. Israel launched a commando raid into Entebbe, killing all six of the hijackers, three hostages, and the leader of the assault, Yoni Netanyahu. This was just one of eight hijackings through Air France’s years.
1 Aeroflot (~5,255 Fatalities)
OJSC Aeroflot - Russian Airlines, or just Aeroflot, is one of the oldest airlines in the world, having been formed in 1923. It is Russia’s flag carrier, and operated during the Soviet era, but has since been turned into a semi-privatized company. In 2006, the company joined the SkyTeam alliance in an effort to modernize its image.
Aeroflot has been involved in more aviation accidents than any other airline in the world, by far, with easily over 500 crashes in its long history. They also have the highest death toll, by far, with over 5,000 fatalities. In fact, while other airlines have just one Wikipedia page about their ‘accidents and incidents,' Aeroflot is the only airline with a page for each decade after the 1950s, and each page has over 100 incidents.
The deadliest recorded Aeroflot accident happened on July 10, 1985, when Flight 7425 crashed in the USSR and resulted in the deaths of all 200 occupants on board. On November 5, 1946, there were three separate Aeroflot crashes in the same day in Moscow! Maybe the planes were malfunctioning, or there was a more sinister agenda, but whichever way you look at it, Aeroflot is the airline with the highest death toll in history.