Friday, July 25, 2014

'Safe' to Fly?

The CNN headline greeting me this morning as I caught up on the news is 'Air Algerie Jet "Disintegrated"' followed by a story about the discovery of the wreckage of the doomed airplane with 116 souls on board in Mali.  Whether it was blown up by terrorists, shot down over a war zone (which northern Mali is), or suffered some sort of catastrophic failure remains to be seen.  This is the third major airline crash in a week; the fourth if you include the lost Malaysian Flight 370 in March.  It has not been a good year for air travel.

Remarkably, just below the Air Algerie story, is this headline:  'Opinion: Despite Crashes, Flying Safe' linking to this story.  However else one might use statistics to make a point like this, what is clear is for the hundreds of passengers on these four airplanes, flying was 100% unsafe.  Despite remarkable advances in airplane technology and reliability, and regardless of what airlines, governments and tourist industry officials say, one takes a risk when one flies on an airplane.  The issue is not whether flying is safe, but rather at what point does the risk in flying become unacceptable, leading potential passengers to opt for other less risky modes of transportation.  In terms of casualty lists, many many more Americans are killed and injured in automobile accidents every year, with numbers in the tens of thousands. And yet the American public has deemed those numbers, and the realities they represent, to be an acceptable level of risk for the advantages afforded in driving a car.  Driving is risky.  Automobile safety standards and road safety standards and traffic laws,are all designed to promote safety.  And in combination they may work together to reduce the risk of traffic mayhem, but the risk remains.  Driving may be more or less safer than it was before, but it is not 'safe'.  Rather, we have agreed that the risk involved is an acceptable trade-off to the relative advantages gained by taking off in our car for our daily commute to and from work.

Media and industry claims that flying is 'safe' sound like rather cynical attempts to reassure future passengers that they can continue to spend lots of money on airline tickets, when all the evidence of the past week and months suggest that their claims, for whatever reason, are not entirely true.  Flying rather obviously involves risk.  Currently, four major 'incidents' in four months still constitutes an acceptable level of risk for most passengers.  But this could change.  Not everyone is rushing out to leap off jagged cliffs dressed in a body wing; not everyone is rushing to sign up for a package holiday tour of Somalia; not everyone is heading to Syria or Iraq on a summer mission trip, not everyone decides that a selfie with the grizzly bear and her cub in the background is a good idea.  And for good reason.

At some point, what is currently an acceptable level of risk will become an unacceptable level of risk.  I don't know when that tipping point will be.  But the current trajectory clearly is not good.

Acceptable risk?