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388. Treading (IV)

We experience anxiety about airline flights primarily because we need agency—and an aircraft provides no agency, except for the pilot. A ship—though drowning is terrible—at least offers an opportunity, if everything goes wrong, to have some agency in the disaster: you could throw together a primitive raft, clutch to debris, or, at minimum, swim. From a survival perspective these actions may well all be quite futile; if you have ever seen even a moderately rough sea—let alone the Cape—then the idea that your actions make any more difference than putting on an oxygen mask as your airliner spirals downwards seems laughable. Further, it is not just a rough sea we should fear; the Titanic went down in millpond conditions, but in the Atlantic in that season people simply froze to death within minutes. This is all before we consider the other tricks in the sea, from strange tides to waterspouts to sharks.

Nonetheless, from the psychological angle, we feel less anxiety about a sea voyage; and this is because we feel that if the worst happened we could to do something—some agency would be involved. Hence it is futile to tell people who chronically fear flying that the statistics show that it is safer than a daily cycle commute; the fear stems from the thought that they might be trapped thousands of feet in the air while there is absolutely nothing, nothing they can do if all goes wrong.

You are pretty much dead if your aircraft suffers a complete failure over the Atlantic; an air crash is a white swan, a very extreme break in regularity. After all, at some level the anxious person knows that the statistics are not about them; statistics are about the regularity—statistical regularity tells you nothing about the flight you are about to board; some aircraft have to crash every year, and there is no reason why it should not be yours.

Of course, even total aircraft failure does not mean certain death; very few things in life are certain, aside from death itself. There are examples, amply documented on Wikipedia, where people have survived falls from aircraft thousands of feet in the air; among these include an airline hostess thrown from a Yugoslav aircraft when it was blown up while airborne and an RAF pilot whose parachute failed—he happened to crash through a large glass skylight on the way down; although that sounds bad, it actually broke his fall sufficiently for him to survive. There are also people who never left their seats—almost always in the tail section—who survived the fall. So it is not impossible to survive a fall from an aircraft, just very unlikely; perhaps there is an art to a long-distance fall that will let you survive, an art that some daredevil will uncover one day.

This is thin reassurance for the anxious flyer. The certain way to stamp out fear of flying would be to provide a parachute under every seat, not because this would actually work but because from a purely psychological perspective it would restore agency. The outlay is not worth it from an economic perspective, since airlines run ridiculously tight margins—military pilots get fancy ejector seats because they are elite human material and cost a great deal of money to train; hence it is worthwhile to save them.

The average Benidorm-goer, squeezed into his EasyJet seat, is not worth the outlay; not that he is too worried, he entered lager comatose long before the aircraft pushed off from the terminal. Due to bravado, most people claim not to be bothered by flying; yet I always sense a certain tension on take-off and relief on landing—and quite a few people are eager to get at the booze in-flight, basically to reduce anxiety. Apart from those who have attained Buddhahood—there is no “you” to have agency—flight will remain an anxious experience, only relieved by booze, drugs, or a courtesy parachute.


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