MH17: No Reason To Fear Air Travel, But Why Do We Still Do?

 

The recent slew of airplane accidents is no reason to start turning away from air travel. The disappearance of MH370, the shooting of MH17 over Ukraine, the TransAsia crash off the Taiwanese coast and the missing Airliner in Northern Algeria in the span of a few months is startling. Yet, to avoid air travel as a result is completely irrational.

Here is an excerpt from an article published in The Guardian concerning this matter:

“…the truth is that air travel is almost always boringly safe and uneventful (whether we concentrate on major US airlines or other carriers around the world). The latest global airline safety report shows there were 90 commercial airplane accidents in 2013. Only nine involved fatalities – a total of 173 people.

These deaths might initially seem to you like large figures – or make the nearly 350 fatalities in the last week between MH17 and the TransAsia tragedy (and hopefully not more) sound enormous – but you are missing crucial context: there were around 32m airline departures in 2013, according to the figures from the International Civil Aviation Organization. That means that fewer than one flight in 300,000 had an accident, and only one in 3,000,000 was fatal.

For one, the fear of dying in a plane crash might actually kill you. For instance, in the wake of the 9/11 air tragedy, huge numbers of Americans switched from flying to driving – for the year following the attack, airline passenger miles fell between 12% and 20% while road use surged. Eventually Americans returned to the skies – but not all of them, tragically, were alive to do so, because driving long distances is much more dangerous than flying – indeed, because the increased road use may have led to more accidents. Professor Gerd Gigerenzer, a German academic, estimated that the road death toll in the year after 9/11 increased by 1,595 people.”

[http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/24/avoid-air-travel-mh17-math-risk-guide]

The article pointed out why the fear of flying is irrational. It did not however, explain why we continue to have such irrational fears, even though statistics prove otherwise.

One explanation could be the perception of suffering. The idea of a burning cabin and screaming passengers falling through the air is a horrifying way to die, and it is the fear of this suffering, which is arguably worse than a quick death, that makes air travel particularly frightening for some. This however, may not always be the case. Drastic changes in air pressure means that most passengers will be unconscious in the case of a midflight accident.

Another cause of fear though, could our sense of helplessness before and during an airplane accident. When we drive a car, we are under the illusion that an accident can be prevented because we are in control. In a plane, we are a helpless passenger. Who knows what the pilot might do? What if he is careless or incompetent? This of course is an irrational fear. Drivers on the road are laymen, pilots are professionals. They are well-trained and well-rested, and not to mention, their own lives are at stake too. They would in fact be more vigilant and more capable in flying their planes than us driving our cars.

The next explanation could be human action. This is especially the case in MH17 where the plane was shot down. Clearly, the probability of an airplane accident being a result of a military attack is less than the probability of one due to environmental and mechanical reasons. (How many airplane accidents in the past ten years were results of being shot down?) Yet, there is a greater fear of human action as compared to irrational one.

Perhaps we ascribe a certain sense of fatalism and blamelessness to natural causes – they are blind, non-discriminatory and guided by forces beyond our control. Some take the term “Acts of God” more literally than others. On the other hand, humans have ‘free will’, and we fear what harm some may do to us using that ‘free will’.

The problem with this thinking though, is that the multitude of factors that lead to any human action are so arbitrary and plentiful that the probability of harm resulting from human action, even if deliberate, is no different from natural causes. To be killed by a drunk driver requires that driver, on a specific day and time to drive along a specific road at the specific moment the victim decides to walk along the same road, for arbitrary reasons and without any forewarning. It is no different from being struck by lightning, the victim also being in the wrong place at the wrong time and the lightning, like the drunk driver, acting in a blind and arbitrary manner.

Another explanation could be the extent and manner of media coverage of airplane accidents. Although more people die in car accidents every year, they rarely ever make the news. However, a single airplane accident would receive extensive coverage. This creates an illusion that air travel is exceptionally dangerous, especially with repeated, widespread footage of the accident its victims. What many people do not understand is that the more something is reported in the news, the less likely it actually happens on a daily basis. After all, news outlets report events that are exceptional, not ordinary. “Dog Bites Man” will never make the front page, but “Man Bites Dog” will. Which is more likely to happen in actuality?

Furthermore, media outlets sensationalize. They do not use words such as ‘plane accident’, but opt for “air disaster”, “plane wreck”, “airline tragedy”. Different words have different emotional impacts. Sensationalism only further exacerbates our fear of flying.

Finally, it could be a simple fear of the unknown that comes with complex technology. The reason why humans have a natural fear of the dark is due to the fear of the unknown, and the dangers that lie within. We fear what we do not understand. Cars are easy to understand, but planes are not. This same fear causes people to refuse to get vaccinated or to eat Genetically Modified foods. However, just because something is complex of beyond an individual’s level of comprehension does not mean it is unsafe. The ordinary person will not understand a plane’s mechanism or its safety features, but knows that when you see an obstacle, stepping on the brake will stop the car. In contrast to a huge 400-ton metal object flying close to the speed of sound, cars seem to be the much safer option

In the end, these are called ‘irrational’ fears for a reason – all the math and statistics in the world would not allay them. It would be harsh to blame those who have irrational fears, especially about air travel, given that the causes of such fears are beyond our control. It is important to note however, that irrationality can place a person in a statistically disadvantageous situation. Therefore, to have such irrational fears, while excusable, is certainly not desirable.

 

 

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About the author

Rio Hoe

Rio is currently a law student at Oxford University. He has a passion for writing, and hopes that his writing elucidates issues, encourages debate and engages his readers. He believes in creating a culture of progressive discourse in Singaporean society. Rio cares deeply about Singapore, and Singaporean issues and he hopes it will be better and stronger by the time he hands it down to his children.

He also writes for The Expository (www.the-expository.com)

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