A total of 176 people died during air travel in 2021, the most recent year of data available from the Aviation Safety Network. That figure is the third-lowest total of deaths on commercial airlines in the history of modern airliners. While that figure is higher than the 137 in 2020 and the 59 in 2017, it is still a tremendous improvement from earlier decades. Between 1958 and 1980, at least 1,000 people died in crashes every year, including a staggering 2,389 in 1972. Clearly, air safety has improved dramatically, and while crashes can sometimes occur, most of the worst flight catastrophes occurred in the 20th century.
To find the worst airplane accidents ever, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the Aviation Safety Network’s database on collisions and accidents. These accidents were ranked by the number of fatalities. All other data comes from the Aviation Safety Network’s database.
There are many causes of plane crashes, including miscommunication, loss of flight control, pilot error, physical deterioration of the aircraft, and failure to maintain flight path. The reason for the deadliest plane crashes in history was communication breakdown that resulted in a collision between two jetliners.
In 1977, two Boeing 747s operated by Pan Am and KLM collided after not receiving proper clearance at Tenerife-Los Rodeos International Airport on the Spanish island of Tenerife. A total of 583 people were killed, the worst tragedy in aviation history. (Also see, these are America’s 26 worst airports.)
A collision in 1996 between an Ilyushin jet operated by Kazakhstan Airlines and a Boeing 747 operated by Saudi Arabian Airlines en route to Delhi in India claimed the lives of 349 people.
The worst tragedy involving a single airplane was that of a Boeing 747 operated by Japan Air Lines, which crashed in Japan in 1985. It was determined that the accident was caused by deterioration of flying quality and loss of primary flight control functions because of rupture of the aft pressure bulkhead of the aircraft. That rapture occurred because of fatigue cracks. (Air travel has other dangers. Here are U.S. airports polluting the air with dangerous toxins.)
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