Thu, Sep 02, 1999 - Page 8 News List

Flying as a modern-day lottery

Dan Bloom

Today marks the second anniversary of the ill-fated flight of a Swissair jet flying from New York to Geneva, ironically and tragically, it occurs two days after LAPA Flight 3142 failed to take flight in Argentina. Two years since that Swissair flight, airline reservations are still strong, the flying public hardly blinks and the sky's the limit. Nothing changes much in the world of aviation and flying safety. It's a gamble, every flight is a gamble but statistically, you stand to win. The numbers are on the side of the living.

But there's a funny thing about the way plane crashes are reported in the news media -- and the way the news is received and digested.

After any major crash, after the bold headlines and day-after analyses, reality returns to the normality that is life. The same thing happened after the recent crash in Hong Kong of Flight 642 and it will with the current one in Argentina.

People who are neurotically afraid to fly (let's call them "fearful flyers") feel justified in thinking the way they do. They often clip out front-page newspaper stories and put them in a mental scrapbook. "See," they tell everyone who listens, " flying is not safe, never was, never will be. How much more evidence do you need?"

Psychiatrists report this all the time. After every major crash that makes international headlines, the fearful flyers among us (and there are many; 30 million in the US, maybe three million in Taiwan) say: "I told you so."

And they add, just so we won't forget: "I am not neurotic. You think flying is safe? Go ahead and fly, sucker!"

People who are not afraid to fly have another survival mechanism, call it a defense mechanism. They see the news on TV and read the stories in the press and say: "Too bad, a real tragedy. But it was just fate, an ill-fated flight. The planes I fly on will never crash. I am indestructible, I am a realist."

And they will fly, again and again. Because flying is safe and statistically you've got a better chance of arriving on time and in perfect condition (minus the jet lag, of course, or the boozy hangover) than the poor blokes in urban traffic jams below. Every Web site devoted to fear of flying will tell you so. And statistics don't lie.

There's a third group who find plane crashes reassuring. These are the people who put their faith in God or Buddha or Allah.

"See, " they say to anyone who will listen, "God works in mysterious ways. When your time comes, your time comes. God is just calling you back early. The pearly gates await you. You have nothing to fear but fear itself. Trust in the Lord and the Kingdom of Heaven shall be thine."

It works, too. Every group finds something in plane crashes, food for thought, fuel for fiery arguments. And they are all right.

And then there are the plane spotters, those devilish plane buffs who stand near runway approaches at major airports around the world and take comfort in watching the slow, graceful approaches of jetliners and prop planes as they jockey for landing rights and runway reunions. There are lots of them out there, every day, everywhere. Fascinated by all kinds of aircraft, they come armed with cameras and a sense of mission. Plane crashes don't stop them, grizzly TV images don't stop them, even typhoons don't stop them.

The final word on plane crashes? There is no final word. The world returns to normal, very quickly, and everyone retreats to their private vision of heaven and hell. The bell rings. Classes resume in the School of Hard Landings and nobody's the wiser.

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