Lesson 4: Your Strategy for Success

(Approx. time to complete: 15 minutes.)

"Air travel, the safest mode of mass transportation" - Dr. Arnold Barnett of MIT

For starters we will look at safety statistics and the relative safety of other activities. Next you will see why the news media sensationalizes accidents and how they are often inaccurate in their reporting. Then we will look at measures to increase security, and finally I will cover techniques for coping with stress and fear.

Safety Statistics

How is a bunch of numbers going to help you? Knowledge is power. Numbers and statistics can be powerful, but only if you allow them to be.

Concern for personal safety is at the core of our basic emotions. Numbers are about logic and reason. An important lesson I learned while working as a Flight Instructor years ago was that people don't learn well under stress. The first step in teaching a new flight student was to get him or her to feel comfortable in the plane. You must focus the logical side of your brain on the facts below. Take comfort in these statistics. I do this flying "thing" for a living. I fly all of the time. I'm a chicken, so I wouldn't be doing this if I thought it was dangerous.

Many people take comfort in going to the local airport to watch planes takeoff and land. After a while you begin to see that flight is indeed routine. Others like to study the ARRIVAL and DEPARTURE monitors in the airport terminal to see just how many flights operate safely. Did you know that worldwide nearly 3 million passengers fly every day? And according to the Air Transportation Association of America, on an average day about 1.8 million passengers are up in the sky over the U.S. on 24,600 flights.

"Air travel is the safest mode of mass transportation," according to Dr. Arnold Barnett of MIT, based on the accident rate over the last few years, a traveler could fly every day for 123,000 years and still be safe. Although travel fatality statistics are represented in a variety of formats, commercial airlines are the safest mode of transport any way you look at it.

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  As you can see from the chart above the number of accidents has declined dramatically while the number of departures has risen.


  And if you happen to be in one of the very rare accidents, the NTSB has issued these statistics which suggest you have a very good chance for survival!

VERY Low Accident Rates

Worldwide, safety has improved dramatically over the last 20 years for commercial air transport even with the dramatic rise in the number of flights.

And it's Getting Safer!

Thirty years ago, fatal accidents on commercial jetliners occurred approximately once in every 140 million miles flown. Today, it's 1.4 billion miles flown for every fatal accident: a ten-fold safety improvement. Aircraft accidents are rare because of the improved safety features and cutting-edge technology in today's planes.

Why? New technology has improved safety. For example, many planes now have systems (Terrain Awareness and Warning System) that warn pilots if they’re about to fly too close to the ground. Major airports have been equipped with systems that warn air traffic controllers of a potential collision on runways. Experts agree that better training and awareness of safety issues have played a big part in making skies safer.

 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman Ellen Conners, noting that some 42,000 people die every year on the roads, said, "I wish all modes of transportation could replicate aviation's safety record."

Steps a passenger can take to increase safety:

  • • Plan escape routes
  • • Attend to safety briefings
  • • Read safety cards
  • • Follow crew instructions

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Flying vs. Driving

How can flying through the sky be that much safer than driving down the road? Let's compare the dangers of driving on a two lane road compared to cruising at 35,000 feet.

Let's say you're driving on a country road with oncoming traffic. What is your margin for error, three feet? What if you or the oncoming driver experiences a problem, maybe an in-car distraction from kids, cell phone, eating, etc? Maybe an animal enters the roadway or you have a tire blowout? Maybe an oncoming driver is drunk or drowsy? There is very little between you and disaster.

Now let's say you are in a commercial airliner cruising at 35,000 feet. How close are you to hitting something? You are about 6 miles from hitting the ground and at least 1,000 feet vertically from any other planes. What about mechanical problems? They are very rare, and the plane has numerous backup systems.


Layers of Protection

Throughout aviation there are carefully designed "layers of protection". That means that many things must go wrong in exactly the correct sequence to cause an accident. For example, let us take a look at what would have to happen to penetrate the "layers of protection" to have a mid-air collision.

First one pilot must allow his plane to stray into the wrong airspace. The onboard computers would have to miss this altitude or course deviation and not set off warnings. The other pilot in the cockpit would also have to miss this error. The onboard collision avoidance computer would have to neglect to warn the pilots of a possible collision. The Air Traffic Controller would have to miss the mistake as well as his computer and his supervisor. Only then if the two planes happen to occupy exactly the same airspace at exactly the same time, and none of the 2 pilots in either cockpit see the other plane could a collision become a possibility.

Now you can see why, when driving a car, you don't have nearly the same "layers of protection" as in a plane.

So the TRUE aviation danger is your drive to the airport. According to these stats, you are much more at risk on that drive than on your flight. So please keep your eyes on the road. While driving your car you are on your own. You don't enjoy all of the safety back ups, ATC radar monitoring, and supervision of highly skilled professionals that we do in the cockpit. PLEASE be careful!

Some other interesting facts I dug up while researching risks:

Average Deaths Per Year:

  • 1,000 on a bicycle
  • 1,452 by accidental gunfire
  • 3,000 by complications to medical procedures
  • 3,600 by inhaling or ingesting objects
  • 5,000 by drowning
  • 8,000 as pedestrians
  • 46,000 in auto accidents
SOURCES: Estimates courtesy of Bureau of Safety Statistics, National Transportation Safety Board

Another somber statistic that we are all vulnerable to is that 600,000 people die each year from cancer. That is the equivalent of SIX Boeing 747 airplanes crashing EVERYDAY!

What have I learned from this? The world is a dangerous place. So please be careful getting out of bed, showering, petting the dog, and driving to the airport. If you can safely make it to your seat on the plane, sit down and relax knowing that no activity you do is as carefully monitored, scrutinized, inspected, maintained, checked, and rechecked as commercial flying.


Why Do Planes Crash?

The difficulty in answering this question is that crashes are normally caused by a combination of unforeseen circumstances. But each time there is a crash, we learn from it and make significant improvements following large-scale investigations. At the end of this course on the Bonus Web Page you will have an opportunity to read about the causes of recent air disasters and what changes have led to our improved safety.

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News Media

Why do aircraft accidents get so much media coverage?

It is because the news only reports unique events such as "Man bites dog". Auto accidents happen frequently so they are not newsworthy. Airline accidents are so rare that the news jumps all over a story like that. When the news media stops covering airline accidents that means they have become commonplace.

Unfortunately, the media sensationalizes stories about air disasters. This has conditioned people to be afraid of flying. It is difficult to ignore the headlines that follow an incident, and often their reports are inaccurate. The media is in a rush to be the first to report, so they often rush to inaccurate conclusions.

I am probably naive, but I assume the media is fairly accurate in most of their reporting. Then I read a subject in which I have some expertise and am amazed at the errors. Have you read articles in the paper dealing with your industry or profession? The news media tries, but generally does a poor job of getting all of the facts straight. They can't be experts about everything, and aviation is a complex subject. An excellent publication for getting no nonsense information about aviation is Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine.

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 Airline & Airport Security - Fear of Flying


Terrorism and Hijackings

The nation's airline pilots and flight attendants are very involved in the new security procedures. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has developed standardized security screening procedures for all airports. The TSA has established layers of security to ensure our safety.

Authorities are going to great lengths to keep our flights safe. Passenger lists are now closely scrutinized and if there are any doubts or if there have been intelligence suggesting a particular flight is at risk, it is cancelled. Everyone on the airplane knows they are being watched carefully for any unusual behavior. And they are being watched by not only the flight crew and anonymous Federal Air Marshals, but by other passengers as well.

    The TSA Security System Includes:
  • • Thousands of federal air marshals flying on tens of thousands of flights each month.
  • • More robust passenger pre-screening systems and 100% screening of checked baggage.
  • • Better airport perimeter security and reinforced cockpit doors.
  • • Dedicated screeners trained and deployed to all commercial airports.
  • • All unoccupied/unidentified vehicles will be removed from in front of terminal areas
  • • Thorough aircraft searches will be performed prior to boarding any passengers.
  • • Armed pilots and crew members trained in self defense.

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