Thoughts on Air Travel

As I’ve gotten older the thought of air-travel makes me more and more nervous. Unlike sitting on a train or a boat I’m almost convinced that in the event of a plane crash it’s quite unlikely I’ll have any chance of escaping alive. At least when a train derails there’s a small chance I could be in the cabin that suffers the least impact and might crawl out of the wreckage. On a boat I might also have a small chance to jumping overboard before it sinks. Small as they may be you have hardly any luck of escaping from an air crash. 

To clarify I’m not referring to the majority of plane crashes that occur immediately after take off or before landing. I’m talking about the crashes that happen due to pilot error or mechanical failure that happen while the plane is high in the air and plunges catastrophically onto the ground or the ocean. Based on compiled information about air crashes most of these end up with no survivors. And don’t talk to me about how an aircrash only occurs in 1 in 1.2mil flights… those kind of statistics don’t mean nothing to the person who’s in the plane that’s going down.

This article by William Langewiesche for The Atlantic (written in Dec 1993) is a wonderfully illuminating article on the technicalities of flight:

Most people — certainly the ones who were sitting next to me over San Francisco — would insist that they can indeed feel the bank. We have all had the experience while reading or dozing on an airliner of feeling a lurch and looking up to see, as expected, that the airplane is tilted. The lurch comes when the airplane dips or raises a wing, starting into a turn or starting out of one. Sometimes we can even give a direction to the bank. But if we then close our eyes, we have no way of telling that we are sitting at an angle. I know from experience how difficult it is to convince people of this. When the bank is visible — for instance, on a clear day — the tilted horizon looks so unusual that the view overpowers other perceptions. But during flight on black nights, or in clouds, the bank is imperceptible, and passengers are heedless. They may feel the odd lurch, but they have no way of guessing the airplane’s degree of bank. The inner ear, and with it the sense of balance, is neutralized by the motion of flight. The airplane could be momentarily upside down and passengers would not know.

I agree that air travel is amazing. It’s incredible to believe that we can get into something that transports us into the clouds and transverses such vast distances so quickly. But I’m always so glad whenever I finally get back on the ground. As long as I’m in the air I’ve no assurance that this isn’t my last flight and I’m always conscious of that fact.

My worst flight in memory is the one I took from Penang to Singapore in 2008. It was the monsoon season and Singapore was being pummeled by constant rainfall and very strong winds. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. As the pilot approached the runway at Changi airport it felt like he was wrestling a live animal. The plane kept rising and dropping violently so much so that I was close to tears. At the time my only thought was ‘not like this Lord, I don’t want to go like this…’ as I clung to my seat with all my might. To the credit of the pilot he chose to land us temporarily at an airfield in Johor to wait for the winds to subside before trying again. When we touched down in Johor I almost wanted to ask if I could kindly be excused so that I could make my way home on any other way that did not leave solid ground 5000 feet below.

Since then I’ve sat on countless other flights, none as terrifying. I’ll probably continue to sit on planes as long as I live (or we run out of affordable jet fuel) but that doesn’t mean that i’m still not constantly fearful of dying on them.

The news in recent weeks hasn’t given me much assurance on the safety of air travel. In light of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines MH370 (and Air France Flight 447) here’re two simple changes I’d like to make to any air-travel in future:

1. Travel long distance only when necessary.

2. Choose only day flights.

That’s not much but it does reduce the risk of pilot error or me being on a plane that’s not been checked properly by a overworked ground crew.

In the meantime, road trip anyone?


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