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Off the Radar & Onto The Front Page

Opinion | April 13, 2015

For a good part of 2014 and running well into 2015, there has been a seemingly endless barrage of aviation-related accidents throughout the world. The PA-34 that crashed in Kentucky and the Malaysian Airlines flight that disappeared somewhere in the Indian Ocean are two examples.  This slew of recent crashes seems to demonstrate a troubling decrease in aviation safety bundled with a radical increase in aviation accidents.

These trends, however, are the dangerous and artificially created products of an increased frequency of high-scale  crashes. In fact, air travel has never been safer. However, since recent accidents have been so extraordinarily tragic, extensive media coverage and general everyday conversation suggest otherwise. Indeed, these unfortunate events and their effects only build on each other, setting the stage for false truths and hazardous consequences.

The first big problem, as alluded to earlier, is the effect of these crashes and their ensuing media coverage on the objective truth. With new plane crashes occurring soon after the last one was beginning to die down in the news cycle, it becomes easy to assume that flying is becoming unsafe. However, quite the opposite is true.

According to data published by the National Safety Council, any given person is 75 times more likely to die from an automobile accident and 55 times more likely to die from a fall than they are to die from “air and space transport incidents.” Additionally, according to the World Bank and the Aviation Safety Network, though the crashes in 2014 were exceptionally deadly, 2014 also had the least number of crashes since 1942, which follows a trend in which there are increasingly less crashes per number of passengers. With 87,000 flights across the US per day (according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association) and many more across the world servicing millions of passengers per day, the crashes we see on the news are veritable exceptions to the rule.

These statistics, however, are doing very little to assuage fears. For example, a new app called “Am I Going Down? Fear of Flying App” has just hit the App Store. With basic flight info such as departure and arrival airports, aircraft, and airline, the app calculates the odds of that plane crashing and the time it would take for the plane to crash if it were to fly its route continuously. According to DailyMail, for example, “If you’re flying on a Boeing 777 Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, there’s a one in 4,068,434 chance that your flight will go down en route.” And, as the app boasts over 10 million routes assessed since January, it’s clear that there is a concern for aviation safety amongst the public.

This anxiety can be dangerous. As more people mistrust air travel, more will shift toward driving and other alternative forms of transportation. Data from the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) suggest that in the months following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, many people took to the road as an alternative to flying. And, as driving has been proven to be at least 75 times more dangerous than flying, it becomes apparent that this shift can be more harmful than helpful. In an abstract published in Psychological Science, Gerd Gigerenzer of the Planck Institute proposes a “dread hypothesis” in which people avoid “low-probability, high-consequence events” out of fear. Gigerenzer concluded, using data from the USDOT, that due to this dread hypothesis, “the number of Americans who lost their lives on the road by avoiding the risk of flying was higher than the total number of passengers killed on the four fatal flights.”

Fear can be powerful, especially because it can seem so reasonable. As flying is not a daily mode of transportation, its novelty is sustained as a relatively special way to get from point A to point B. Therefore, fears of being in a plane crash are understandable. While automobile accidents are dangerous already, little can be said when compared to a plane crash because while one might be able to walk, crawl, or be carried from  a car accident, the same is not true of a plane crash. And, with the controls of the plane so far away from a passenger’s hands, flying requires a massive amount of trust in an airline and its pilot, something the public may be less inclined to grant as more high-fatality accidents occur.

And, as more of these high-fatality accidents occur, more fuel is poured into a dangerous positive-feedback loop propagated by the dread hypothesis and the media. Especially in an age when the majority of news sources already rely on revenue from ad sales and subscriptions to stay afloat, many more outlets could possibly fall to choosing revenue-generating content over substantial stories, like California’s declining water supply or even the US-Iran talks intended to curb nuclear proliferation. Since so many already tune in to hear drama unfold of suicidal pilots crashing planes into the French Alps or miracle survival stories, providers are happy to continue diverting coverage with the expectation of turning in a profit. Unfortunately, as these news articles and segments are produced, they only add to the already-extant and growing fear of air travel that makes it seem as if there are more and more plane crashes by the day.

Whatever the consequences may be, however, fear will always be the root of all problems. As it is almost impossible to reason with fear, it will take some heavy convincing before the public can trust aviation, and the media can resume regular coverage once again. Unfortunately, with the frequency of casualty-heavy airplane crashes during the past two years, data can do very little when compared to actual crash footage from CNN.

So if there is to be any attempt at returning to business as usual, all parties involved must take an active role. (Keep in mind that for time’s sake, these suggestions are over-simplifications of the actual methods required.)  Airline companies must perform more extensive background checks on their pilots and must check equipment with a much higher standard in mind. If this is successful, the media will then have very little material to extensively cover, and people will consequently have less to fear, bringing media and airline companies to normal profits once again.

Then, and only then, can fears be sufficiently assuaged and people convinced that flying did not become unbelievably mortally dangerous overnight. True, the past two years have seen unusual misfortune, but that shouldn’t lead to forgetting just how incredible flying is—some say sky is the limit, but clearly that’s already been surpassed!  Don’t let a random slew of accidents muddle the data: research by organizations like the Aviation Safety Network and the National Safety Council indicates that flying is only becoming safer, and that is much more reliable than some lousy app you found on the App Store.

Art by Nina Hofkosh-Hubert.