It has not been a good week for commercial airliners, to put it mildly. And not unreasonably, that has some people worried about flying. But the truth is that, even with a bad week for aircraft, getting on a plane is still far safer than you think.
You Probably Did Something Far More Dangerous Today
First, not to belabor an old saw, but airline travel is incredibly safe. How safe is it? Well, consider that the 51 people who were killed in the TransAsia airways crash yesterday can’t even touch the number of car accident fatalities in one state in one year.
This is obvious when you stop and think about it: Planes are flown by trained professionals who’ve spent at least 250 hours flying and have to hold an instrument rating, meaning that they’ve been taught how to assess meterological data and its impact on a gigantic, complex machine. Compare this to the process of obtaining a driver’s license, which in some states might as well just be issued at birth to save everyone some time at the DMV.
Also of note is just the sheer number of cars on the road. There are 253 million cars on the road just in the US, compared to, uh, 360,000 general aircraft in the entire world. That includes helicopters, by the way, which are actually insanely dangerous.
So why don’t the numbers reassure us? Well, it comes down to the fact that our brains suck at both properly measuring our abilities and understanding when we screw up.
The Illusion Of Control
The big difference between a car and an airplane is that you’re not flying the plane. But odds are pretty good that you shouldn’t be driving the car, either, not without a more rigorous licensing process.
The problems are twofold. First, we tend as a species to misinterpret near-misses: We view them as successes, not near disasters, and in fact, we’re so inclined to do this we’ll happily risk other people’s lives on something we know might fail or even flat-out not work. Part of the reason airliners are so safe in America is that the FAA treats near-misses like airplane crashes. That’s why the idiot you saw on your commute cutting across three lanes of traffic did it in the first place: He’s done before, he’ll do it again, because he never got hurt, so what’s the problem?
Secondly, people like being in control, even when they’re not. It’s so strongly ingrained in us that not feeling in control of our lives and decisions can actually ruin our health. We need to feel like that no matter what happens, we can grab the situation by the horns, or by the nuts if necessary, and save our own necks.
We can’t, of course. But tell that to the survival instinct.
Finally, it’s worth noting that of the three crashes in the last week or so, one was caused by severe weather, one was caused by flying over a war zone, and still another was probably caused by one of those or pilot error. So, as long as your flight to Pittsburgh doesn’t cross any geopolitical hellholes, you’ll probably be OK.