Thoughts on Air Travel Safety
Regular readers (hi mom and dad!) may have noticed things were quiet here this past week. One reason is logistical as I was occupied by a work project. But the more relevant reason is that my capacity to think about travel was consumed by the aviation tragedies of the past week. Posting about some airfare sale or whatever just felt trivial in light of such calamity.
First and foremost, my thoughts and condolences to those directly affected. Malaysia Airlines, TransAsia Airways, Air Algerie – any one of these incidents alone is a tragedy and catastrophe. All three in a week is beyond devastating.
I objectively know that commercial air travel is, statistically speaking, exceedingly safe. Indeed, many of the week’s reports cite aviation experts attesting to that fact, and as many offer statistical data to support it.
So I won’t rehash the stats here, but rather share my personal, subjective reasons for considering air travel safer than any other mode of transport.
I live in a car-crazy city; it is simply not practical to go about life here without driving every day. Yet every time I get in a car, whether as a driver or passenger, I’m nervous.
I can be the most cautious, defensive driver ever – but I still can’t control the fact I share the road with all kinds of loons. Drivers who are drunk, texting (even though it’s technically illegal), applying makeup, otherwise distracted, or simply reckless. Heck, I myself am guilty of some of these occasionally.
In fact, people don’t even need a license to get behind the wheel. (Legally, yes. Logistically, no.)
When flying, the pilots operating your aircraft are specifically trained to fly it safely. Further, the pilots of every other plane up there are trained as well. In ground travel you share the road with the aforementioned loons, but at 30,000 feet everyone piloting is trained and screened.
Even the amount of time off a pilot is to have before flying is regulated, which is more than can be said of surgeons and other professionals whose job is (or should be) equally focused on preserving life.
And note the plural noun – pilots. On commercial flights there is not only a captain but also a first officer at the controls. You don’t have that kind of “back-up” in a car or even most other mass transportation such as a bus or train.
Regular maintenance and safety inspections
I have seen (or heard) cars on the road with brakes so worn they sound as if they’re grinding metal at each stop. I know someone (coincidentally, a doctor) who put 60,000 miles on a car without changing the oil because she didn’t know it was something you’re supposed to do. Again, you are sharing the road with these braniacs (and their poorly-maintained cars) when you drive.
In contrast, I am confident there is a long list of maintenance work that commercial aircraft undergo regularly and an equally comprehensive list of pre-flight safety inspections that occur before every commercial flight takes off.
Even non-mechanical things are checked – the weather, for example.
I’ve had many flights delayed or cancelled for mechanical or weather reasons, and when it happens I try to remember that inconvenience is a relatively small price to pay for safety.
None of these things guarantees a perfect experience (as the tragedies of this past week remind us), but in the big picture I still consider commercial air travel exceedingly safe compared to the alternatives.
As I wrote in a prior post on travel safety tips, everything in life has risk – from bungee jumping to driving your kids to school to merely sitting on the couch. It’s not a matter of avoiding risk (which is impossible because everything has risk), but of managing risk well.