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Is flying safe?

While I wrote this several years ago, I think this question is still something fearful flyers wonder: is it safe to fly?

I read an article at Renegade Travels that looked at some statistics and declared that flying is indeed still safe, despite how it looks in the news.

a picture of a plane, taken from a plane; is flying safe?
a picture of a plane, taken from a plane

The author is right, of course, even if you don’t choose to believe the Wikipedia statistics the article relies on: flying is still far, far safer than driving. The mainstream media agrees that flying is still extremely safe.

The Renegade Travels post blames our increased fear on the media:

These days, events like this are reported live and the reporting drags on for as long as people are interested, which is often days or weeks. If you see this reported every day, then of course it will start to seem scary.

That’s true. The media does play up air disasters in a way that makes us more fearful.

However, I don’t think that’s the only reason we are afraid. I think a lot of it has to do with the nature of an air crash itself.

While many people survive car crashes, your chances of survival in an air crash are practically nil. We don’t fear driving because we can maintain the illusion that even if we do have an accident, we’ll survive it.

A KLM jet being pushed back from the gate on its way to the runway. Is flying dangerous?
A plane taxiing to the runway

Of the three recent air disasters, one—the Malaysian Air flight 17 crash over the Ukraine—was caused by a missile attack, while the other two—Malaysian Air flight 370, which has yet to be found, and the latest, AirAsia flight 8501, which is still being investigated—may have been caused by a problem with the plane itself or human error of some sort.

The idea of those few moments of fear before the crash, being trapped in an airplane, knowing that you’re going to die, is horrifying. That’s why people are reassured when they read that passengers on MH17 most likely lost consciousness as soon as the missile hit.

All of us who fly frequently can picture ourselves in that airplane: the ordinariness of it all. Flight attendants hand out drinks, people chat or doze or watch the in-flight entertainment. In the background, the engines hum, and now and then a bell dings as a passenger summons a flight attendant. Turbulence shakes the passengers so that those walking in the aisles have to steady themselves by grabbing onto the seat backs. It’s all so mundane.

view from a plane
Leaving on a jet plane

We can imagine the moment of shock and terror as the missile struck, followed by … what? Hopefully, unconsciousness.

We can also picture ourselves in a car, driving along, listening to the radio, maybe singing along to a familiar song, watching the scenery fly by, hearing the rhythmic beat of the windshield wipers or whir of the air conditioning over the general hum of the car engine, feeling the bumps in the road. We can imagine a crash: the rush of adrenaline and alertness, the swerve to avoid a collision, the squeal of the tires as we stamp on the brakes.

The difference between the two? Our ability to control the situation. Statistics to the contrary, we all think we’re good drivers, and that we can avoid an accident. “Human error may happen, but not my human error. I know there are far more fatalities from car accidents, but that won’t happen to me because I’m such a good driver.”

We all think we’re good drivers, and that we can avoid an accident. Click To Tweet

And if a car breaks down, chances are it won’t cause catastrophic injury. It’ll just putter out and stop, and we can get it repaired. So while some of us may keep our car better maintained than others, a breakdown is unlikely to kill us. Equipment failure on a plane? That will kill us.

In a plane, we’re entirely dependent on others: the builders, mechanics, pilots, control tower personnel and so on. That lack of control is frightening.


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None of this, of course, addresses irrational fear of flying, something I’ve been wrestling with all my life. I’ve understood for years why I’m afraid of flying. What the media does is accentuate those fears. By playing those stories and shots of wreckage and so on—over and over again—they help phobics like me dwell on that fear rather than think rationally.

And this blanket media coverage is totally unnecessary! Report the crash, of course, but then get on with the more important news and leave the families of the victims alone.

A plane crash—even three of them—does not mean that flying is any more dangerous than it used to be. I know that. You know that. So why this fear?

How have these air disasters made you feel about flying? Leave a comment below!

8 Comments

  • Eva Synnergren

    January 6, 2015 at 9:53 am

    I am not particularly afraid of flying – BUT – I never watch the TV shows about why a plane crashed and don’t want to think about it all together. So, deep inside I am probably afraid anyway.

    Reply
    • rachel75

      January 6, 2015 at 10:54 am

      I wonder how many people who say they’re not afraid are just a lot better than me at suppressing the fear or just thinking about something else. I never watch a film or tv show that involves any plane crash! Thanks for commenting, Eva!

      Reply
    • rachel75

      January 7, 2015 at 11:19 am

      I wish I could feel the same confidence! When my kids were little they tended to keep me distracted, which helped. Have a great flight!

      Reply
  • Kay Dougherty

    January 9, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    I’m very fortunate not to have a fear of flying but I really don’t like driving! I figure that the planes and pilots have to meet high standards of maintenance and training but almost anyone can get a driver’s license. Yes, plane crashes are horrific and must be a terrible way to die. But dying slowly in a nursing home looks even worse to me. So I’ll fly and assume it will go well and so far it has!

    Reply
  • Jordan Jorgenson

    October 30, 2015 at 5:08 pm

    I agree that flying is still safe. I also agree that it is terrifying not being able to be in control of what will happen on a flight. Do I trust that the machinists have done their work well and precisely? Do I also trust that the Pilates are well trained? I can definitely say yes. If I was unsure then I wouldn’t fly. Thanks for your post.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      October 30, 2015 at 7:43 pm

      To me, there’s trust and there’s trust. I trust them with my rational brain because I know there are all kinds of safeguards in place. I don’t trust them with my phobic brain because I don’t know them personally. I’ve always thought that if I took flying lessons and could fly a plane myself I’d be less phobic, but I don’t dare take the lessons!

      Reply

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