The Unlikely Event
October 27, 2003
A relatively recently development in my life has been the fact that I've been spending a lot of time on airplanes. I'd travelled a good bit as a kid, going back and forth to India several times, but as an adult I'd generally only been flying once a year until last year, when I flew at least 30 individual legs. I'll be besting that number significantly before this year is through. Each time I fly, though, I find myself wishing for more information on what's going on with the plane, and what else I can find out about my flight.
Though I lament the fact that my frequent trips mean going to the airport is no longer an "event", that loss is more than mitigated by the fact that I almost never get nervous about flying any more. I realized that I'm generally very calm on a flight back from the U.K. about two weeks ago, when some very minor turbulence had the passenger next to me clutching my hand and doing a quite poor job of masking the fact that she was praying. I don't mean to insult my fellow passenger, as some very good people are nervous, cowardly flyers, but it's exceedingly unlikely that I'd want to be holding hands with the same person who has insistently denied me the use of an arm rest.
The universe, of course, has a perverse sense of humor so I was burdened with a particularly unpleasant takeoff last week when departing from Newark, and it gave me occasion to reflect on how airlines could do a better job of dealing with the inevitable concerns of those who fly infrequently and are afraid of turbulence.
The key thing to remember is that people's fears about flying aren't rational. We all know that driving is statistically more dangerous, but driving doesn't generally involve ceding control to a complete stranger and operating in a circumstance when any one of dozens of significant mechanical failures can result in a terrifying 7 mile plunge to a fiery death. So pulling out the actuarial tables is rarely sufficient for quieting qualms.
Like most fears, I think fear of flying (or rather, fear of crashing) comes from a lack of information. Now that I fly a lot, I understand the vagaries of takeoff and landing, the subtleties of boundaries between different air masses, the stench of a completely inebriated cabin crew. I can tell when a flight's about to get unpleasantly rough.
Those of you who are also frequent flyers may be able to appreciate my credentials here; I was once on a flight so bad that we actually got two free rounds of alcoholic drinks, not least because most of the first round ended up getting poured into people's lap's. For those not familiar with the practice, air hosts operate on the same principle as casinos and children's birthday parties, with the understanding that cranky, petulant guests are much easier to placate when they've been plied with unending quantities of complimentary refreshments.
So how to deal with the nervous nellies who whimper their way through a standard bout of gentle bumps? More information. The in-flight maps with air speed and altitude are fantastic, and I'm glad more airlines are displaying this information while we're in the air. But someone who doesn't fly often might not know that the runway they're using to take off is perpendicular to the eventual direction of travel, and will thus require a banked turn shortly after takeoff. That steep roll means people on the side of the plane nearest the outside of the curve will be feeling weightless when the plane levels back out after completing the turn. I've seen more looks of sheer terror caused by that banking and floating than almost any other common event during a flight.
Similarly, those of us who aren't armchair meterologists might not know the various levels of the atmosphere that we're punching through on the way up, and might not be able to anticipate that a certain number of feet will be accompanied by a certain amount of shaking. Granted, we can often see air boundaries due to the change in cloud cover, but a lot of the people who are most scared aren't exactly eager to look out the windows.
So what to do? Have the crew explain these things, dammit! A friendly voice telling the most trepidatious passengers that the normal operations of the flight may cause uncomfortable situations would let them mentally prepare, instead of forcing the wandering, creative and cruelest part of the mind to start imagining horrible fates at every turn. Most flight crews will tell a flight about significant turbulence, if only to urge folks to buckle up, but a broader explanation of what's going on with the plane might do a lot to convert someone from an occasional passenger to a true frequent flyer.
Finally, airlines ought not forget about the almost lyrical beauty of flying. It's still amazing that we've made this incredibly complicated machines, and this even more complex infrastructure, to allow people to defy gravity on such a regular basis as to be uneventful. Those of you who are familiar either with the Newark airport, the stretch of the New Jersey turnpike which approaches Manhattan, or the vagaries of furnishing an apartment in the greater New York City area are undoubtedly familiar with what I call "the Ikea runway", which runs parallel to the Turnpike and begins right across from the furniture store.
It's a north-south runway, parallel to the Hudson River my most recent approach to it began heading southbound at night just as New York City's lights were coming on. I was opposite the side of the plane which was facing the skyline, but I knew we needed to trace a semicircle before landing, so I just waited patiently. A thick cover of clouds prompted our pilot to drop us to just a few thousand feet a bit earlier than normal, so we were low enough to distinctly make out individual cars and houses on the ground, and as we swung around, I got a fantastic view, first of the Atlantic, and then of my town.
I counted one, two bridges from higher up, and then focused on the cars on the Turnpike as we came in closer. I've driven that stretch a million times, and it's usually all I can do to keep from racing the planes as they come in, directly parallel to where I was driving. But this time I was in the plane and free to gloat, as very few of the Jersey commuters were able to approach at anywhere near 200 miles per hour. Finally having made our point and won the drag race, we braked to a halt.
I probably had a greater appreciation of the elegance and smoothness of the approach from having done it so many times, but the geek in me still wishes I had more iinformation. And even those who are less geeky would probably feel a lot braver about flying if they had that information, too.