It's extremely difficult—indeed, nearly impossible—to get yourself killed while traveling on an American airline these days.
The last fatal accident on a U.S. commercial passenger airline was in 2009, when a Continental Connection flight crashed into a house near Buffalo, killing 49 people aboard and one on the ground. Smaller turbo prop and cargo planes have been occasionally involved in fatal crashes since then. But if you are a typical traveler, you're unlikely to wind up on one of those flights.
And 2017 was a particularly good year. Globally, it was "the safest year for aviation ever," as Adrian Young of the Dutch consulting firm To70 told Reuters in January. On top of the fact that there were no passenger jet fatalities, other types of flying got safer as well. There were just 111 accidents worldwide, the company reports, only two of which included deaths—one flight in Angola on a Brazilian-made aircraft and the other on a Czech-made plane in Russia.
Another report which came out at the same time, from the Aviation Safety Network, found 10 fatal airline accidents worldwide resulting in 79 deaths, including cargo planes.
Those figures don't stop a significant percentage of flyers from freaking out whenever their huge, safe jet hits a patch of turbulence, though. For the sweaty-palmed flyer experiencing a moment of personal panic, knowing the numbers isn't always enough.
But what if there were a powerful man—maybe even the most powerful man in the world—doing whatever he could to keep you safe? Would that make you feel better?
As his administration headed toward its first anniversary, Donald Trump celebrated with a tweet: "Since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news—it was just reported that there were Zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!"
The implied claim is nonsensical: that an American president with just under a year in office is responsible for a decadeslong global trend of decreasing numbers of deaths and injuries. Yet many people find it comforting to imagine someone with his sleeves rolled up, being "very strict" about safety. That's because human beings tend to undervalue gradual, impersonal, technology-driven change and tend to overvalue good intentions and tough talk.
Asked to clarify the president's tweet, Deputy White House Press Secretary Raj Shah said that Trump "has raised the bar for our nation's aviation safety and security," pointing to his proposed corporatization of the U.S. air traffic control system and some new anti-terrorism measures. The president, Shah said, was "pleased that there were no commercial airline deaths in 2017."
That proposal to reform air traffic control would indeed be a positive step, but it is currently stalled with Congress, so it cannot be improving safety already. And those anti-terror measures aren't responsible either. Yes: For national security reasons, carry-on electronics were banned on flights from 10 predominantly Muslim nations for much of the summer, and the Transportation Security Administration now examines certain devices differently. But jet crashes caused by terrorism are even rarer than jet crashes caused by pilot error or technical malfunction. There's no evidence that these small tweaks to the TSA's screening process made a difference in passenger safety.
What's more, there were no formal regulatory (or deregulatory) changes reported by the Federal Aviation Administration in Fiscal Year 2017, which is where you would expect rules governing the physical safety of flyers and the integrity of aircraft to show up. When Trump spoke with airline executives in February of last year, safety was not among the topics he discussed. And the 2017 statistics are global, covering many airlines and flights over which U.S. authorities have no control at all.
Trump's desire to take credit for the accomplishments of private industry and international standards bodies is buoyed by a catastrophic popular misconception about the power of the presidency. It's also a common mistake that politicians of all stripes make—and encourage others to make—nearly every day.
Presidents are not all-powerful wizards with an ability to control their domain completely and manipulate it at will. They certainly do not personally sustain heavier-than-air flight.
Trump is the master of credit-claiming, tweeting in December that he was responsible for the fact that Americans were "saying Merry Christmas again," presumably after an eight-year hiatus under Secret Muslim Barack Obama. The president was roundly mocked for claiming credit when he deserved none, and rightly so. But more "respectable" politicians do the same thing all the time when it comes to jobs and economic growth.
During her first campaign for the presidency, Hillary Clinton claimed that as a senator, "I voted to raise the minimum wage. And guess what? Millions of jobs were created." What's more, she warned, "Don't let anybody tell you that it's corporations and businesses that create jobs!"
Barack Obama committed this fallacy spectacularly in a much-derided speech wherein he claimed that "generations from now" we will be able to look back on his nomination for the presidency "and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth."
He was right, actually, that on many of those metrics we have seen steady improvement from nine years ago, when he took office, just as we have seen improvements since Trump's presidency began. But it would be a mistake to credit those improvements to the men who happened to occupy the Oval Office when they occurred. They are the result of the combined efforts of 7.6 billion people to make life better for themselves and each other, through the voluntary exchange of goods and services.