5 Ridiculous Myths About Air Travel You Probably Believe
This column's going to read like a goddamn paid advertisement for the airline industry, but this is what it's come to, because there's something uniquely grating about the widespread misconceptions surrounding the unrivaled achievement that is humankind soaring through the air. People will bitch on and on about how religion is a lie, but then they'll be afraid to get on a plane because rationality is only fun when it's challenging someone else's beliefs. So let's challenge yours. Or, to phrase it more kindly, humans may have evolved to walk, but ironically we're orders of magnitude better at flying. So here are the myths that need to die ...
Pilots Make Tons of Money
Pilots are well known to be up there with doctors and lawyers and guys who make bullshit apps in the annals of Those Raking It In. Except, did you know that, according to the book Cockpit Confidential, ticket prices have declined in part because pilots' salaries have also declined 42 percent in the past three decades? Pilots make less than you think they do. And you know who else you can say similar things about? Artists. Hear me out ...
Because they're the same. Considering how hard and time-consuming and expensive it is to get to a place where you're allowed to take the controls of a $100 million airliner, the only people who get to do that job are those who have to fly. Much like the arts, it's largely the domain of obsessives who'll persevere through anything to live their dream, and much like artists, pilots are taken advantage of by an industry that gradually cuts back on how much they earn, full well knowing that they'll never quit and get other jobs. Professional artists are just the ones who survived the attrition, and pilots the same.
You can illegally torrent music and games until you're blue in the face, but artists will still be making music and games, even if it's in their spare time after 23 hours in the plutonium mines, because it's what they have to do. And you can cut pilots' pay to the point where they're so overworked they push the stick the wrong way in a stall due to sheer fatigue and crash into suburban Buffalo, but they're still gonna be lining up to fly. Because they have to. It's up to the non-artists and non-pilots of the world to not be gigantic dickbags and maybe not take advantage of some of the rare people in this world with a fucking passion for something, if only because you might be the one traveling on a regional jet whose first officer has to live with her parents and work a second job because you're paying her $16K per year to do something you'd never have the balls to get anywhere near.
Flight Attendants = Sky Waitresses/Waiters
Imagine having to deal with the public every day (and if that's bad enough on its own, just skip to the next section). Now imagine having to deal with the public every day after a round of drinks. Now imagine it's set to the soundtrack of screaming babies and/or people bellowing indignantly, because not a single member of the public appreciates the realities of a life spent dealing with the public. Now set all this in an enclosed space designed by engineers and accountants (and idiots). Now imagine having to smile the whole time because, surprise, you're the face of the company. Now imagine having to selflessly leap to the aid of said unbearable members of the public should anything go wrong. Now imagine being exactly as scared of disaster as they are, except you need to be better than them because the public will look right fucking down on you until there is an emergency, at which point they will instantly shift to looking up to you.
Now imagine you first have to be one of the 4 percent of applicants who pass several interviews to weed out the idiots and then go through weeks or months of training and endless tests to weed out the cowards. If you're late once, you're gone. If you fail more than one test, you're gone. You have to memorize huge lists of procedures and get your training so ingrained that you will act automatically in an emergency. All that for the privilege of working in a confined space with the drunken, asshole public, each of whom see themselves as the star of life's movie and thus take everything personally, some of whom you would rather push into a fire but must risk your life for, and too many of whom look at your job and say, "Oh, I could easily do that: it's just waitressing." But the public could never deal with the public while waiting tables, let alone being responsible for everyone's safety at the same time. This is why you tip your sever 20 percent, and why you should be goddamn nice to the flight attendant you'll be expecting to save your life. Plus, like the pilots they work with, they're often so underpaid that they might actually be serving you dinner later at a restaurant as their second job.
Flying Is Expensive
It really isn't, unless of course you own an airline or manufacture airliners. Did you know that you can get tickets on discount airlines for a price that is almost an affront to the technology and resources and man-hours and training and achievement and wonder and sweet paint jobs behind air travel? Did you know that if you stupidly arrive late for your goddamn undeserved and miraculous $30 flight you will loudly blame everyone except yourself because you are never wrong? Did you know you perhaps may lack perspective?
Did you know that time is valuable? Did you know that you can take a bus instead of flying, and when you arrive after 16 hellish bus-hours (that's over 63 days in regular hours), did you know that 100 percent of the time you'll wish you had just shelled out for that two-hour flight so as not to have squandered precious minutes of your life? Because you can get more money, but that time is fucking gone.
Oh, and did you know that prices for airline tickets have absolutely plummeted since 1980? Because flying used to be expensive, much as it used to be something people didn't take for granted. There's probably a correlation there, so if you find yourself thinking of flying as just another common travel option and one that should be cheaper, then odds are it already is.
Disasters Have Simple Causes
You are not all going to die (at least not the way you think). The only way turbulence is going to bring down your airliner is if it's the final straw in a massive and improbable chain of events that you could live for literally 123,000 years and never see. Turbulence -- or any other single factor that immediately has you writing your will on the back of a napkin -- isn't enough to cause a disaster, much in the same way that one correct number isn't enough to open a combination lock (and turbulence isn't even one of the correct numbers), because disasters are always and only the result of a chain of factors ...
If you remove just one of those factors, there's no disaster, because that's what a disaster is: the rare time when rare factors somehow align perfectly.
Which is why they're so rare. Which is why Tenerife is by far the worst accident in civil aviation history: because it's not the kind of thing that can happen twice, and it already happened.
All you have to do is look at the serious incidents that didn't result in mass death and see that there were a whole host of things that precluded the factors that lead to full-on tragedy -- things like crew training and aircraft design and safety procedures and the lessons of history that will always be there preventing your frankly deserved death as you watch nearly everyone survive an airplane cartwheeling across the tarmac and then still say airplanes are dangerous. The goddamn airplane was the reason more people didn't die.
So it's like this: if you're afraid of flying, you might as well be afraid of pillows and marshmallows and flowers and Wilford Brimley and other things that technically could kill you but almost certainly will not (although waking up at 3 a.m. to see Wilford Brimley looming over me wielding a pillow does haunt my dreams). It's not that you're wrong to be afraid of air travel, it's that you're so wrong to the point of needing some kind of violent intervention. But I know I can't shout you into not being afraid, because fear doesn't work that way. However, I can try to make you even more afraid of every other mode of transportation to the point that air travel merely seems like the minefield with the least mines.
Statistically, the space shuttle killed 15 million people for every billion journeys it took. Do not take the space shuttle to work. Statistically, motorbikes are exactly as dangerous as you think they are (i.e., one step below doing this). And vans kill thousands, yet are twice as safe as cars (and thrice as sexy). And very few people die on buses, but those who do die horribly. All driving is safer than walking or biking. Did you walk somewhere today? Across the room?? WHAT THE FUCK WERE YOU THINKING??! And cars ... tens of thousands of people die every year in car accidents in the U.S., and several thousand pedestrians with them. The only reason air travel seems dangerous is because you hear about literally every single goddamn incident. Imagine the papers if they reported on every single incident involving cars.
You know how you drove to the store despite the howling blizzard, at night, because reasons? Stupid, stupid reasons? You know how you always take idiotic chances? Now take the opposite of that and you have the very basis of the airline industry. Car accidents are so prevalent because the people at the controls of the vehicle are morons and idiotic risk takers (i.e., me, you, and everyone we know). The more convenient a form of transportation is, the less safe it likely is (except for the space shuttle, aka Death Tube 4000). When something conversely takes great skill and professionalism to operate, what you get are statistics that show that, given a journey of equal distance, you are 65 times more likely to die in a car than in a plane (or 18,065 times, if it's a British-made car). These statistics literally mean that you're safer being in an airliner than, well, not being in an airliner (I wrote this column when I was in a house, but I live on the edge). Oh, and while air crashes are never single-factor, unlocking a car accident is terrifyingly easier. It's not really a lock when stupidity can open it.
Meanwhile, air travel has been growing exponentially with every decade, and yet fatalities have, well, died. Did you know that, more than anything else, the airline industry represents humans being really, really good at zero-tolerance safety, and in pioneering ways -- to the point where even doctors are hovering around taking notes? (Considering how bad we are at other forms of transportation, it's honestly one of the great achievements of modern times, and why I'm willing to sound like a borderline paid shill to talk about it.) Oh, and most air-travel fatalities involve aircraft you're not ever likely to travel on. Oh, and these days there are approximately eleventy billion flights per hour all across the world, yet fewer than 25 fatal incidents per year. Oh, and odds are you don't know anyone who was in a plane crash, but odds are you know someone who was in a car crash, or you were in a car crash, or you're right now passing the time waiting for the jaws of life by browsing Wikipedia and you noticed the frankly shocking list of notable people who were gone too soon because they died in car crashes. We're way too afraid of airplanes, and not even close to afraid enough of cars.
Or let's put it this way: car travel is exactly as dangerous as you think air travel is. And air travel is as exactly as safe as you think car travel is. Many times safer, actually, because by far the most dangerous part of flying is the drive to the airport.
For more from Winston, check out If Airplane Safety Instructions Were Honest and 4 Valuable Lessons You Only Learn from Having a Crappy Job.
Also, give it a rest about dogs and cats on a plane. Animals can't drive anywhere, because animals should never be allowed to drive.