Friday, March 27, 2015

Why do we have a strong emotional connection to air crashes?

Statistics tells us that air travel is one of the safest modes of transportation. For example, during 2013, the NHTSC recorded 32,719 deaths from vehicle crashes in the United States while at the same time, the Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives recorded 459 deaths from airplane crashes. This latter statistic is worldwide and not just crashes occurring in the U.S.

According to a recent USA Today article, airlines expect to carry 134.8 million travelers during 2015, a figure that I find staggering; I would never have guessed that. Doing some quick math, this puts the odds of being killed in an air crash at around 1 in 300,000. That's not quite as safe as the odds of being struck by lightning which according to NOAA is 1 in 960,000, but it's still safe enough for me to keep flying.

Since airplane crashes are so rare and the results so devastating, these events are decidedly newsworthy and receive deserved attention and analysis. We demand to know what happened, why it happened, what could have been done to prevent the crash, and what steps can be taken to ensure that the same thing can never occur again.  As a result of our demands, both government and industry tend to respond with uncharacteristic speed in implementing needed improvements.

Why do humans manifest such a strong emotional connection to air crashes but give barely a second thought to the much larger number of deaths from traffic accidents? In statistical terms, which represents the bigger tragedy?

I believe the answer lies with the fact that when we step onto an airplane, we relinquish total control of our freedom and place our lives into the hands of complete strangers. We humble ourselves and willingly consent to become prisoners of the crew. We park our butts into cramped, uncomfortable seats and wait for permission to loosen our seat belts and to use our electronic devices. We are told when we can eat and when it is necessary to return our tray tables to their fully closed and locked positions. Most humiliating of all, we must wait until the captain decides when we are allowed to go to the bathroom.

In any other scenario this behavior would be considered abusive, but we put up with it because we understand the high stakes involved and that sometimes safety trumps our personal dignity.

We place our trust in the crew and on the airlines in general that in return for our subjugation they will keep us safe. If the facts reported are true about the crash this week of Germanwings Flight 9525, then the action of Co-Pilot Andreas Lubitz represents a gross betrayal of that trust and plays to our worst nightmares of being utterly helpless as an airline passenger. We can imagine being there and can empathize with those poor souls during their final moments. That's why we feel so emotionally connected.

To make matter worse, Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr reported that Lubitz was a fairly experienced co-pilot with 630 flight hours and was "100 percent fit" to fly. Apparently, Lubitz's employer disregarded evidence of the man's alleged psychological problems. A black eye for just Lufthansa or an indictment of the entire industry?

Sobering thoughts for the next time you consider flying.

Do you agree with my analysis, or am I missing something here?

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