The public’s interest in the Ethiopian 737 MAX crash was much higher than usual for many reasons

The 10 March 2019 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX aircraft, was unusual in many respects, including the fact that this model has had its second fatal crash less than two years after entering airline service. This kind of frequency for a new aircraft model is rare, and has not been seen since the 1960s.

Worldwide interest was also driven by the fact the passengers killed in the crash included citizens from over 30 countries, including and a number of United Nations employees and others in the international community who were traveling to a conference in Kenya.

That intense attention was reflected in the amount of traffic at the aviation safety and security web site AirSafe.com. Based on a review of nearly 13 years of daily traffic data on the site, the magnitude of the traffic on day of the Ethiopian Airlines crash suggests that the level of public interest is not only high, but also extraordinary.

The events that attract the most attention to the site are all associated with events that involve large jet airliners, particularly those that lead to one or more passenger deaths. The graphic below is a graph that shows the traffic during this period (10 May 2006 to 17 March 2019). The unit of measurement is a web session, which is described in detail by Google Analytics.

The average amount of traffic has risen and fallen over the years, but during that time there have been a few events that stand out because they had very large spikes of traffic driven by dramatic events such as fatal plane crashes.

Screenshot of Google Analytics display of AirSafe.com Traffic from 10 May 2006 to 17 March 2019

The two largest spikes of daily web sessions were associated with the crash of a Germanwings A320 in France in 2015 and the crash of an Air France A330 in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. The most recent prominent spike was the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX near Addis Ababa in 2019. A closer examination of the most significant traffic spikes from this period will suggest that the magnitude of public interest in the hours after the Ethiopian crash rivaled the public interest in some of the most well known crashes from the past decade.

To get a sense of how most traffic is distributed, the following graphic is a histogram of the daily traffic volume.

The next graphic that excludes the top 15 traffic days of the period. Excluding these days (representing the top 0.4% of traffic days from the period) makes it easier to get a sense of how traffic is generally distributed.

Putting the high traffic days in context
AirSafe.com identifies high interest events through a combination of overall daily traffic, and how a particular day’s traffic compares to a recent four-week traffic period. To do so, for every day in the study period, the traffic on that day was compared to the traffic over a four-week period starting five weeks before the day in question. The extra seven day gap was to account for those events where public interest in an event may peak several days after the occurrence.

The traffic on a particular day was compared to the sample standard deviation of the 28-day comparison period. The events for the study period were filtered to find days that were both in the top 15 in daily traffic and the top 15 in number of standard deviations above the sample mean of the traffic from the comparison period.

There were seven events that met both criteria, including the Ethiopian event. Each of these events were ranked with respect to daily traffic and in the number of standard deviations above the sample mean of the comparison period. Those ranks were added to further categorize the event. The lowest possible total rank value would be two for an event that ranked first in both categories, and 14 for one that was last in both. Using this ranking method, these seven events were fell into four categories:

Total rank value 3
Air France A330 in the Atlantic Ocean — June 2009
Germanwings A320 in the French Alps — March 2015

Total rank value 8
Turkish Airlines 737 in Amsterdam — February 2009

Total rank value 10
Asiana 777 in San Francisco — July 2013
EgyptAir A320 in the Mediterranean Sea — May 2016
Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX near Addis Ababa — March 2019

Total rank value 12
Malaysia Airlines 777 flight MH370 in the Indian Ocean — March 2014

These results imply that the Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX crash had a higher level of peak public interest on AirSafe.com than the crash of flight MH370, it also had a higher level of peak interest than the following events from the study period:

  • US Airways A320 in New York (The Miracle on the Hudson) — January 2009
  • Malaysia Airlines 777 flight MH17 missile event over Ukraine — July 2014
  • Metrojet A321 bombing over Egypt — October 2015
  • Lion Air 737 MAX in Indonesia — October 2018

Future public interest
Having a day of extraordinarily high public interest does not mean that the event will sustain the public’s curiosity. Other circumstances surrounding the event will determine if an event will still be making headlines weeks, months, or years in the future. Of the events mentioned above, some like the loss of flight MH370 may still capture the public’s attention years or even decades from now.

References

Plane crashes and web site traffic (2015) http://www.airsafe.com/analyze/spikes.htm

AirSafe.com traffic spikes May 2006 to November 2015 http://rpubs.com/airsafe/spikes

How a web session is defined in Google Analytics https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/2731565?hl=en

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Former USAF and Boeing engineer and creator of aviation safety and security site AirSafe.com.

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Todd Curtis (airsafe)

Todd Curtis (airsafe)

Former USAF and Boeing engineer and creator of aviation safety and security site AirSafe.com.

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