Flying fears soar after another air tragedy

A German passenger jet has crashed in the French Alps, killing 150 people. It is the latest in a string of high-profile air disasters. Is it reasonable to be afraid of flying?

Yesterday morning 150 people boarded Germanwings flight 4U 9525 in Barcelona. Among them were 16 schoolchildren, returning to the north of Germany from a foreign exchange trip to Spain. They were due to land in Dusseldorf by lunchtime.

They never made it home. Air traffic controllers decided that their plane was in distress at 10:45am and the aircraft disappeared from radar in the French Alps at 11:20am. The plane had crashed, and the French government says that there are no survivors.

The tragedy comes amid a spate of recent high-profile air disasters. Almost a thousand people died in air crashes around the world in 2014 — the highest toll for a decade — and 40 more were killed in the TransAsia crash last month. The mystery around Malaysia Airlines flight 370, which disappeared with 239 people on board last March and has not been found, inspired more tweets in the UK than any other news event in 2014. Even now, one year on, it retains a particular power to fascinate and horrify people.

Devastating plane crashes always make major news headlines, in turn increasing people’s concerns about the safety of flying. Some studies suggest that fear of flying affects one in ten people, while others put the figure much higher: an American poll in 1999 suggested that 50% of people felt frightened at least some of the time while flying.

Statistically, however, flying is very safe. More people are killed by hippos each year than aeroplanes, and you are more likely to die falling out of bed than in a plane crash. Flying is also getting safer — someone flying in 1964 was 38 times more likely to die than they were in 2014. Even flights which get into difficulties rarely crash. And contrary to popular perception, most people in plane crashes survive, just as American actor Harrison Ford did a few weeks ago.

Survival instinct

Judging these statistics, the fear of flying is groundless. Nothing is entirely safe, but far more people die at home or on the roads than while flying. Most plane crashes require a catastrophic sequence of events to take place; those involved are simply desperately unlucky. Save your fear for things you can control, some say: fear of flying is irrational.

But perhaps reason cannot overcome our deepest fears. Flying involves surrendering control and subjecting oneself to unusual sounds and sensations. Fearing it is a product of primal instincts, such as the fear of falling, that are more natural than being transported at 550mph while 35,000 feet above the ground. As yesterday’s tragedy shows, sometimes hundreds of lives can be wiped out in moments. For many people, even the remotest possibility of such an occurrence is terrifying.

You Decide

  1. Do newspapers focus too much on rare but dramatic catastrophes like plane crashes?
  2. Can reason overcome fear?

Activities

  1. Think of something which scares you. List some things which you could do to deal with your fear of them. Discuss in groups what you think the best way of overcoming your fears would be.
  2. Prepare a presentation entitled ‘Why we fear’. Try to include at least three reasons why we fear things, and explain which you think is most important and why.

Some People Say...

“Fear is pointless.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why did this crash happen? It’s such a tragic waste of life.
When such a major incident happens, people want to know as quickly as possible what’s behind it, but it takes time to find these things out. The most likely explanation is some kind of mechanical failure, but the plane’s flight recorder will give investigators more clues.
I’m about to fly off on my Easter holidays and I keep hearing about plane crashes. Should I be scared?
You’re very, very likely to be fine. There is no obvious link between the different crashes that we’ve been hearing about. They keep featuring in the news because 150 people dying in a single incident will always be considered a big story and because flying scares a lot of people. But thousands of planes make it safely to their destinations every day.

Word Watch

French Alps
A huge mountain range covering parts of France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Germany. Air traffic is very busy in this region.
Malaysia Airlines flight 370
This flight, from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to Beijing in China, mysteriously vanished on 8 March 2014, sparking a massive global search operation. The plane remains undiscovered to this day and nobody knows for certain what went wrong, although most experts believe that it crashed into the Indian Ocean after a technical fault.
Harrison Ford
American actor who, coincidentally, starred in Air Force One, a film about a hijacking of the US president’s plane. He survived a real-life air crash on 6 March.
Fear of falling
Some scientists say that newborn babies are born with two fears — of falling and of loud noises — and that all other fears are culturally acquired.

Subjects