The field of aviation is extremely valuable to transportation and it is by far the fastest and safest method of long distance travel, especially when compared to automobile transportation. Unfortunately, public perception of flying is often skewed and many people fear aviation. This becomes a problem when an accident occurs and the media offers in-depth coverage of the event because people cease to fly and resort to driving instead. What the average traveler does not consider is the number of death that occur on the roads as a direct result of this decision. In effect, the media is killing travelers by scaring them away from the field of aviation.
Enough About Risk, Let’s Look at Danger
Millions of passengers travel via air each month. Commercial aviation, coupled with other forms of transportation such as automobile traffic, allow a global connectivity that has never been witnessed before. Aviation is, however, different from other methods of transportation in that it is a source of stress and fear for many more people. The average persons’ risk assessment of aviation is horribly skewed and, when combined with media outlet’s focus on events surrounding aviation accidents, this pushes many more people away from air travel. Because the media paints a dark picture on aviation after accidents, many additional fatalities from alternative forms of transportation occur within society
Humans are poor assessors of risk in their everyday lives. Things that are commonplace have a proportionally lower perceived risk then things that are foreign or abnormal (Locsin). While at one point this was an adequate protection method, modern dangers are far more complex then, say, wild animals or floods. Factors such as weather, other people and traffic, education, experience, and mechanical reliability are all factors that play a huge role in transportation safety. The following graphic is a very good visual representation of the relative risks that each event exhibits compared to how much our society focuses on the event.
Many of them are not even close in regards to risk, suggesting that as a society, we spend far too much time worrying about things that pose little risk to us. One notable point is that things such as terrorist attacks and plane crashes are foreign events; that is they seldom occur and always make breaking news. Events that are commonplace like driving see opposite attention from the media and society as a whole, but present a far greater danger to the average person (Bigelow). This points us to an interesting fact about human perception. We are heavily influenced by social stimuli like the media, and media outlets heavily cover events that are considered breaking news. As a result, we focus on what is unusual, not what is dangerous, effectively normalizing common dangers and exaggerating foreign ones. This assessment of risk brings about another important aspect of travel related fatalities: the actual danger of flight.
Commercial air travel has been reported to be one of the safest methods of travel for many years. In a lifetime, the odds of dyeing because of automobile related accidents are about 1 in 98. In contrast, commercial air travel boasts odds closer to 1 in 7,200 (Locsin). While this doesn’t factor in the frequency of travel or the traffic in each, the number of fatalities per 100 million miles traveled is nearly zero for aviation, whereas cars yield a value of 1.2 deaths.
The above chart from the National Transportation Safety Board reports the number of fatalities in 2012 from various transportation methods. Highway accidents accounted for an overwhelming majority of these fatalities and accidents that were a result of aviation accounted for the fewest. In addition, a majority of the fatalities that occurred as a result of aviation were general aviation accidents, not commercial, suggesting that the common traveler is much less likely to face danger than even someone flying for recreation.
Aviation is safer because it is a field that is dominated by trained professionals in an environment that exhibits far less traffic than automobiles (Negroni). These pilots must work for years at great cost to themselves before they are qualified and experienced enough to fly for a large commercial airline. In addition, whole departments of each airline is dedicated to monitoring maintenance issues with each plane and very seldom does something slip through the cracks. Regulatory administrations like the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) closely govern aviation in both a commercial setting and a general one, further contributing to its reliability. Finally, air travel sees more publicity and therefore airlines and the FAA make a much more significant effort to maintain safety for fear of public outcry (Bigelow).
When an accident does occur in commercial aviation like the Asiana flight that landed short of the runway in San Francisco, our society reacts potently (Romantan). Each media outlet strives to become the first of its competitors to cover the event and the nation comes to a halt in disbelief.
The above cover from the New York Post does a very good job exhibiting the attention aviation accidents yield. While this particular accident was both surprising and shocking because of the situation surrounding the event, an equal number of people are killed in every hour on the roads (Road Crash Statistics). The fact that the event is big news, so to speak, elicits a much more in-depth response from the media and society as a whole. This should not surprise anyone, since the media has become much more aimed at attracting viewers than it has in the past, and as I discussed earlier, an aviation accident is an abnormal event. If the media were to broadcast every car accident that occurred each day, there would be no space of other news. Eventually, it all comes down to public perception and risk assessment, neither of which the average person is very good at moderating (Bigelow).
It is public knowledge that many people are anxious about flying, despite the known and factual aspects of air travel that make it so safe. Flying, like fear of spiders, sharks and terrorists, is, for most people, an irrational fear that is a direct manifestation of each person’s lack of risk perception. The single most effective events at driving passengers away from air travel are aviation accidents. Someone who is already nervous or anxious of flying is likely to avoid flying all together shortly after an accident (Wong). This begs the question: what do passengers who don’t want to fly do?
Automobiles feel safer for most people because they are in control of their vehicle, as opposed to relying on the skills and experience of others (like pilots) to guide them safely to their destination (locsin). While events that spark a drop in air travel often result in less traveling, many people instead turn to automobiles as an alternative form of long distance travel. The ironic aspect of this development, seen most prominently following the events of 9/11, is that by switching away from flying puts travelers at greater risk because they migrate towards the highway system instead (Ball). This has been cited as “a hidden cost of terrorism” by researchers at Cornell University and it clearly shows the underlying impact that airline accidents have on society.
When a commercial airline accident occurs, there are fatalities as a direct result of the incident and as an indirect result through car crashes that happen when people choose to drive rather than fly. While it is true that people may avoid flying regardless of the media’s influence on events, news outlets play a large role in societies collective fear of flying (Romantan). Indirectly, the media is incurring fatalities as a result of their over coverage of aviation accidents because it draws on the average persons skewed perception of risk in their daily lives.
Of course the media is not purposefully endangering travelers by hyping up fears of air travel, but it is important to note the consequences of their actions. As a society and culture, we look to the media for answers, and we often follow their opinions. When a newscaster reports on the danger of aviation and the unbelievable number of casualties in the most recent aviation accident, sprinkled with close up shots of the horrified families, viewers respond in awe and shock. A traveler may decide, on a whim, to drive across the country instead of fly for fear of air travel. Because driving is so much more dangerous, many people who make this decision may end up in an accident on the road, putting them in far more danger then flying would have.
Modern day technology is an amazing tool when it comes to long distance traveling. While traveling is much safer now than ever before, the key to maintaining that safety lies in knowledge. At the end of the day, it is the traveler that will ultimately pay the price for misinformation or unprecedented fear of flying. After all, the media is trading lives for views as they warp public perception away from flying. The media and our culture as a whole needs to start assessing the relative risks that exist in everyday life more holistically. Only then will travel be as safe as can be.
Romantan, Anca. The Social Amplification of Commercial Aviation Risks: A Longitudinal Analysis of Media Effects on Air Travel Behavior, 1978-2001. Rep. University of Pennsylvania, May 2005. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.
Wong, Jinn-Tsai, and Wen-Chien Yeh. Impact of Flight Accident on Passenger Traffic Volume of the Airlines in Taiwan. Rep. Web.
National Transportation Safety Board. Digital image. Ntsb.gov., 2013. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
Murder at 33,000 Feet. Digital image. New York Post., 18 July 2014. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
Ball, James. “September 11’s indirect toll: road deaths linked to fearful flyers.” theguardian., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.
Bigelow, Pete. “Think air travel is risky? Try driving a car.” Autoblog., 7 Aug. 2014. Web. 24 Oct. 2014.
Hertrich, Susanna. “Susanna Hertrich.” Susanna Hertrich., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2014.
Locsin, Aurelio. “Is Air Travel Safer Than Car Travel?.” Travel Tips., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2014.
Negroni, Christine. “Why Airplanes Are Safe.” Travel and Leisure Mar. 2014: n. pag. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.
“Road Crash Statistics.” Road Crash Statistics. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.
Blalock, Garrick, Vrinda Kadiyali, and Daniel H. Simon. Driving Fatalities After 9/11: A Hidden Cost of Terrorism. Rep. Cornell University, 5 Dec. 2005. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.