Can I cure your fear of flying? That depends more on the nature of your fears than my skills of explanation. I’m not a psychologist, and not everybody’s fears are rational. In a high percentage of cases, what fearful flyers actually fear has little or nothing to do with flying itself and cannot be dispatched by explanations, statistics, or straight talk. They don’t need a pilot; they need a counselor or a mental health professional.
A certain level of fear is normal, whether you’re a first-time flyer or a seasoned crewmember. I can’t be surprised that millions of reasonable people find it hard to reconcile the notion of traveling hundreds of miles per hour, far above the Earth, inside pressurized tubes weighing hundreds of thousands of pounds. Such an activity is not natural for human beings, and while it doesn’t quite violate the laws of physics, it does seem to violate any and all common sense. Technology has created it work, but while airplane travel isn’t statistically dangerous, inherently it’s another story.
As for stats, Bill James, the baseball academic, likes to say, “Never use a number when you can avoid it.” Normally he’s right, and I don’t enjoy dishing out numerical platitudes. We’re so used to abstract validation of air safety that it no longer makes us think. A few statistics, however, are worth our time. For example, this one, which you can almost visualize: each day, in the United States alone, about 25,000 commercial flights take to the air. Globally, extrapolation yields about 50,000 daily trips. That’s every day, every week, every month. The ten most popular airlines alone make close to six million flights per year. Of these, the number failing in their attempt to flout gravity can be totaled in astonishingly short shrift.
How short? Here in the United States, we are riding strong amid the safest-ever stretch in the history of commercial aviation. As this manuscript is being prepared in 2013, we have not seen a large-scale crash involving a major airline in more than eleven years. That’s a record qualitative analysis back to the arrival of the jet plane itself. Our last catastrophe was that of American Airlines flight 587 near Kennedy airport in November 2001. Since then, the only major-carrier fatality was that of a young boy killed when a Southwest Airlines 737 overran a snowy runway in Chicago in 2004. The boy was in an automobile struck by the skidding plane. Granted, there have been several nonfatal incidents (Sully-upon-Hudson, to cite one) and a handful of tragedies involving regional planes, but even with these included, the nation’s fatal accident rate has fallen 85 percent since 2000. From 2008 through 2012, the odds of being in a fatal accident were approximately one in 45 million.
This, despite the industry’s unprecedented fiscal woes. The fallout from September 11 gave us thousands of layoffs and four major carrier bankruptcy filings, then came the 2007–08 fuel-spike crisis, followed by a terrible recession. Say what you want of customer service, but even though our largest airlines have been reeling financially, they’ve remained impeccably safe.