Why on Earth Are We So Afraid of Flying?

Bradley Doucet
Issue CCXXXI - January 10, 2010
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Fear serves an important function, alerting us to perceived danger. As long as that perception is grounded in reality, fear is a perfectly rational and useful response. The release of adrenaline into the bloodstream helps us prepare for fight or flight, depending on our ongoing appraisal of the situation. A person who literally feared nothing would fail to plan for adverse events. He would not react appropriately when trouble occurred. And so he would not survive very long.

Fear is only a problem when it becomes untethered from a realistic assessment of the facts and overrides one’s reasoning mind instead of serving it. In such cases, fear becomes a liability instead of an asset, harming rather than helping one to live a successful and fulfilling life. An example of such unreasonable fear is the fear of flying. Commercial flights in the modern, industrialized world are extremely safe, yet various polls suggest that somewhere between 25% and 50% of us are either very or somewhat afraid of flying. What could account for this widespread, irrational fear?

If It Bleeds, It Leads

We’ve all heard the slogan “If it bleeds, it leads.” It refers to the fact that bad news is more likely to make it onto the front page, while good news is more likely to be buried on page 17. But as it happens, it also very much matters what kind of bad news. A fatal plane crash, like the one that occurred outside of Buffalo in early February of 2009, killing 50, gets a whole lot more coverage than the dozens of fatal car crashes that occur every day. Partly, this is because a plane crash is more spectacular, but partly it is just because it is less common. In fact, as a general rule, the less chance there is of something happening to you, the more likely it is to get covered in the news, and the more coverage it is likely to get.

Don’t just blame the media, though. Selling newspapers is a business, and it responds to consumer demand. If the media prioritize bad news, it is because consumers do so as well. Now, it makes a kind of sense to talk about the uncommon, for if something is common, you probably know about it already, and at any rate, it is not really news. The unfortunate thing is that this leads to an inverted view of the world, for the normal state of affairs—which is the absence of crisis—gets no attention at all, while the exceptional—the crisis—gets a ton of it. It also results in an inverted hierarchy of fears, in which we worry more about dying in a plane crash (very rare) than about dying in a car crash (less rare), and we worry hardly at all about dying of heart disease (very common).

But even if “Plane crashes near Buffalo, 50 dead” is news, a responsible news story would at least mention, “All 30,000 other U.S. flights departing on the same day arrive safely”—not because people don’t know it (though some would be surprised at the sheer number), but because we don’t think of it when faced with the shocking story of the crash. (It is probably too much to ask, though, for newspapers to run this headline on most days: “30,000 U.S. flights depart and arrive with zero fatalities—again.”) Instead of responsible reporting, though, we get endless coverage of the crash, from every possible angle, searing the awful event into our memories, there to distort our judgment of relative risks forevermore.

With no disrespect intended to the families and friends of those who died in the recent plane crash, why do the profiles of these particular victims qualify as national news? Why not profiles of the 40,000 people who die every year on America’s roads, or the many hundreds of thousands of Americans who succumb to heart disease every year? Every death is a tragedy to someone, but not every death merits a national news tribute. Only because they died unusually do these 50 get special attention.

Statistics 101

The first step in overcoming one’s fear of flying is educating oneself about just how safe flying really is. This requires examining statistical data, which requires the use of our brains and is thus at an immediate disadvantage as compared to shocking, dramatic, anecdotal news coverage, which appeals directly to our emotions. Our schools, furthermore, still generally do a poor job of teaching people how to think about statistics,  and a terrible job of imparting a sense of why statistics are important.

Most people have heard that flying is very safe, but many either do not know or do not understand the statistical data that prove it. In the last 20 years (1988-2007), some 2000 people have died in plane crashes aboard U.S. commercial carriers, according to a quick calculation from a table at the National Transportation Safety Board’s website. That’s an average of about 100 deaths per year. In that same period, miles flown grew steadily from 4.5 to 8 billion per year, while departures grew (less steadily) from around 7.5 to 11 million per year. So, roughly 100 people died for every 6 billion miles flown, or for every 9 million departures.

An interesting example of people’s trouble with statistics is the controversy over whether flying is safer than driving. The aviation industry prefers to highlight deaths per mile flown or driven, which makes flying look safer than driving. Some critics, on the other hand, focus on deaths per departure or per trip, which makes driving look safer than flying, since trips taken in a car are generally for shorter distances than trips taken in a plane. This criticism, though, ignores the fact that one cannot always, or even usually, substitute a short drive for a long flight—one wants to get from point A to point B, and therefore the choice is between a drive and a flight over the same distance, which makes the deaths per mile standard more appropriate. Still, there are times, such as when planning a vacation, when one could choose to drive a short ways instead of fly a long ways simply by choosing a closer destination. In addition, the per-mile standard ignores the fact that accidents are more likely (though still very rare) during takeoff and landing, which is a point for the per-departure standard.

So while it is clear that flying is very safe, figuring out whether flying is safer than driving turns out to be more complicated than it at first appears. Ottawa Citizen columnist Dan Gardner, in the introduction to his recent book Risk: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn’t—and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger, cuts through the confusion by describing an actual statistical test of the competing hypotheses. In the year following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, fear of flying understandably jumped, and many Americans changed their traveling patterns, driving instead of flying whenever possible. The result? Over 1500 extra deaths that year as a direct consequence of the switch from airplanes to cars. That’s about as many as normally die flying over 15 years!

We Have Nothing to Fear But Fear of Flying Itself

Overcoming a fear of flying is therefore an important thing to do, for it saves lives. For those whose fear of flying is extreme, some therapy may be required in addition to education about risks and statistics. Either way, the payoff is clear: the more people fly instead of driving, the more lives will be saved.

If man were meant to fly, some say, he would have been given wings. The obvious rejoinder is that if man were not meant to fly, he would not have been given such big brains with which to invent flying machines. Actually, an even deeper answer is that man was not meant to do anything, because the universe is not teleological. Nonetheless, those big brains can be used to learn statistical reasoning; to keep fear in its proper place; to counter emotional news stories and demand more responsible reporting; and ultimately to guide us in living happier, more fulfilling, and longer lives.

Why on Earth...? is a series of cultural commentaries by Bradley Doucet.

Bradley Doucet is Le Qubcois Libre's English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also writes for The New Individualist, an Objectivist magazine published by The Atlas Society, and sings.

Copyright, The Atlas Society. For more information, please visit www.atlassociety.org.

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