Is Commercial Aviation Safe After Four Major Incidents?

To ensure that your travels are as safe as possible, this engine is about to be tested at the Technical Operations Center of Delta Air Lines at its world headquarters. You do not want to be in this room once the testing starts; rather, you would want to be in the room behind that dark window located on the wall on the right side of this room. Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

“Do you think that the terrorist attacks on passenger planes is part of a trend that should change the our perception of the probability of flying?” asked FlyerTalk member shawbridge in this discussion. “Are the other crashes indicative of a trend in the flight-worthiness of planes (e.g., poorer maintenance or willingness to fly in bad conditions)? Or are these just akin to a few heads in a row in a sequence of random coin flips and shouldn’t change our assessment of the probability of plane accidents?”
The reason why shawbridge is asking is because his “wife is concerned about our upcoming trip to Croatia and the Czech Republic (which is preceded by a weekend in Toronto). Her fear is that somehow terrorists will now be targeting passenger planes and maybe that the overall risk of flying is higher.”
Recent events have understandably caused trepidation in some people when it comes to travel. Those recent events include but are not limited to:

To avoid a similar catastrophe through which the passengers and flight crew members encountered aboard the Boeing 777-2H6ER aircraft which operated as Malaysia Airlines flight 17, the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States officially prohibited all flights to Tel Aviv operated by airlines based in the United States from flying to or from Ben Gurion Airport for a period of time due to security reasons as a result of civil unrest — most notably, the reports of a rocket which supposedly launched from the Gaza Strip and landed in Yehud near Ben Gurion International Airport.
Noting that the crash of the Boeing 777-2H6ER aircraft which operated as Malaysia Airlines flight 17 occurred exactly 18 years to the day after an airplane which operated as Trans World Airlines flight 800 crashed shortly after departing from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York does not exactly help to alleviate the fears people might have pertaining to commercial air travel in recent months.
I am not one of those people. As I stated here, I would have no problem watching an airline disaster movie during flight…
…and in fact, the following paragraph is part of what I stated on the tenth anniversary of the terror attacks of the United States which occurred on September 11, 2001:

“All I wanted to do on September 11, 2001 was to find the tallest building and get to the top of it, or fly on an airplane as a passenger. I wanted to shout to the adversaries that if they wanted a war, bring it on, for they will be sorry. I wanted to show those low-life terrorists that they don’t scare me, that our country will only be stronger, and that the United States will be better than ever despite their attempts to destroy it.”

Sure, we can say how dangerous air travel has become and cower, not wanting to travel. We can mitigate our risks in our attempts to stay alive as long as possible. Let us be as safe as we can so that we can enjoy life.
Sorry. I don’t buy that. Not for a second.
It is easy to get all caught up in the sensationalist media hoopla surrounding incidents which cause the deaths of hundreds of people all at once — but the incidents must be viewed realistically. They were not caused by blatant carelessness or purposeful negligence — although it can be argued that a missile attack on a supposedly unintended target can certainly qualify. Unusual and atypical circumstances were the causes which resulted in the tragic accidents listed above. Even terrorist attacks are not considered ordinary in most places on our planet; and where they may be considered part of the norm, you may want to exercise greater caution if you do not intend to outright avoid those places altogether. I visited Beirut several years ago and would have no problem visiting Israel — despite the aforementioned prohibition imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States, which has since been rescinded.
While it is important to not be foolish — I personally would not jump out of an airplane at 35,000 feet without a parachute or peek into the mouth of a hungry wild lion — travel is all about taking risks. Every time you walk out of the door of your home, you place yourself at risk — without even mentioning all of the potential risks that exist inside your home. I will bet that there were more fatal accidents on the roads and highways near your home since January 1, 2014 than which occurred in the air involving commercial aircraft in the same time period; and I will bet that more people died in motor vehicles in your country in a year than in airplane crashes — yet you still step into your vehicle to travel from one place to another.
I could cite statistics all day long — but that is not the point.
Travel is about experiencing different cultures; meeting new people; tasting foods which are new to you; and experiencing activities which you have never done before — all of which can be risky in one sense or another. Travel is not about repeating the same habits; eating the same foods; and “sterilizing” the experience to the point of being mundane, predictable — and “safe.”
Think about it. Which trip report sounds more exciting to you: one which the person experienced caviar and champagne in the lap of luxury — or one where the person tells you how he or she narrowly escaped a situation considered potentially dangerous?
Without going into details, I remember one time I was photographing an outdoor market in Abidjan — the capital city of Côte d’Ivoire — while doing everything I can to ensure that I respect the privacy of people by not taking their pictures. A local man suddenly grabbed my arm and started incessantly yelling at me angrily in a native language I could not understand; and he would not let go of my arm, which he gripped firmly and tightly. It was initially frightening when a crowd of local people started gathering around us — but then I noticed that the looks on their faces were more of curiosity and initial confusion than that of anger. I kept trying to explain in French that I was not taking pictures of people; but rather of the market — but to no avail. Finally, several men wrested the hand of the man from my arm, took him over to the side and eventually calmed him down before the crowd dispersed.
That was a scary moment in my life — but what a story to tell!
I am not advocating that you should drop a sedentary lifestyle to instantly become a thrill-seeker. What I am saying is that there really is nothing to fear — and that with risk comes excitement, adventure and intrigue. Please tell your wife, shawbridge, that what terrorists hope to do more than kill people — seemingly randomly — is to instill fear in people; and the reaction supposedly displayed by your wife is exactly what terrorists want — even if they are not responsible for the source of that fear. Just take the proper precautions when you travel, knowing that there are always risks involved — and know that despite the recent incidents through which no one survived, commercial air travel is still one of the safest methods of travel in the world
…so sit back, relax — and enjoy your flight. May your travels be packed with plenty of excitement where you will experience reactions of envy every time you tell your travel stories to others — but may you travel safely in the process; and never be afraid to take flight…
…and if it sounds like I am saying goodbye to you, please be assured that I am not — but I am about to announce a major change with The Gate. Please stay tuned — and thank you for reading over the years…

9 thoughts on “Is Commercial Aviation Safe After Four Major Incidents?”

  1. GRALISTAIR says:

    An absolutely brilliant story/statement. I could not have said it/told it better myself. I confess as a scientist I am one of those that takes morbid delight during great turbulence and seeing the wings bend of turning to my fellow passengers and saying “Ahhrr – perfect, all is well with the world”. Wings bending like crazy is exactly what they are designed to do”

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Exactly my thoughts and sentiments, GRALISTAIR. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I appreciate it.
      Keep on watching those wings bend!

  2. GateHold says:

    The problem nowadays is that because of the 24/7 news cycle and the pervasiveness of the internet and social media, we tend to fixate on air crashes in a way that was never possible in decades past. This messes with our perspective.
    Worldwide, flying has grown safer and safer. Last year was the safest ever. This year, while something of a correction, should not affect the overall trend.
    People forget how common major air disasters * used to be. * Go back to the year 1985 for example. The 60s, 70s and 80s were rife with horrific crashes, bombings, etc.
    More in my essay here:
    – PS

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Your excellent article was exactly what I had in mind when I wrote this article, Patrick. I read it before writing this article.
      The last link in this article is to a discussion posted on FlyerTalk with a link to the article you wrote — but thank you for posting a direct link. Your article is definitely recommended reading.

  3. Josh Davis says:

    Interesting description of the current events in Israel/Gaza as ‘civil unrest’…!

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I tend to understate more than I overstate, Josh Davis — and the term “civil unrest” was not of my creation; but rather from a news story which I believe was linked from a discussion on FlyerTalk, which was linked from the article I wrote here.

  4. PDXUA says:

    That’s a great perspective and one that I share. Great article and well written. Keep on adventuring!

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