Statistically, air travel is the safest way to get around this lonely rock.
One could reasonably argue that it is more dangerous to walk to the corner store from your second floor apartment, the combination of stairs and sidewalk are statistically far more dangerous to your livelihood than stepping on an airplane. However, that doesn’t provide the balm we all seek.
I’ve been flying since before I could walk. By the age of 5 I’d already racked up a good dozen flights around the world as the child of diplomats. Flying on planes is literally in my bones. My sister is an especially anxious flyer, on every intercontinental flight we take together she pops a couple sleeping pills to negotiate the anxiety of being suspended in a vacuum tube hurtling across the sky thousands of kilometers in the air. I however, am stuck enviously glaring at all the sleeping people around me, praying that this bout of turbulence won’t lead us to the series premiere of Lost.
That is the wild thing about flying. It’s something that we totally take for granted. Ever since the first human looked up at a bird with some mixture of envy and fear, humanity has been fascinated by the idea of flight. From Icarus to Da Vinci, our culture is littered with a variety of rudimentary attempts at levitation. I think we often forget that the Wright Brothers made their famous flight just over a hundred years ago in 1903. The powered “heavier-than-air” aircraft.
The history of air travel since that wild invention is littered with mishaps, accidents and tragedies. Because, when you take a step back, as a casual consumer and passive flyer, you realise how frankly insane and absurd flying actually is. How many of us can explain how flight works? Something to do with drag? And wind and lift? Aerodynamics and momentum. But it works, right? I can hop on an plane, hurtle across the atmosphere and end up on another continent in a few hours. A treacherous journey that used to take days, weeks, or months. And more often than not took people’s lives.
In the days since the Ethiopian Airlines tragedy, I, like many passive flyers have spent a few too many hours reading up on the Boeing 737 Max 8, it’s purported design flaw, and this strange tension between automation and human control. Apparently a plane can stall in the sky, if the plane has taken the wrong angle towards the incoming wind. When a plane stalls, it drops. It loses lift, and just drops. A 200,000 pound rock dropping from the sky. These new jets have an automated correcting system that takes over from the pilot. So if the system senses something, it will correct, and override the human. But if the system has a faulty input, the human has to override the machine. If the machine permits.
And that’s perhaps what jarrs us all so much about airplane tragedies. This new tension between automation and human control, which begs the question: Who is responsible for aircraft accidents. Who’s really doing the flying, the pilot or the machine? And as a passive flyer, packed in like a sardine? Air travel is fundamentally absurd, and reverts the natural laws of the planet. Specifically gravity. Ultimate proof of humanity’s dominion over the planet. We reckon with the absurdity every time we step on a plane. We feel safer in cars, in buses and on bicycles because we are in control and we are also on the ground. Even though, statistically, flying is much, much safer. At least we can legally drink on planes though!