The recent PBS Frontline program “Flying Cheap” focused on the 2009 crash of a Continental/Colgan Air Flight 3407 near Buffalo, NY, killing 51 — a terrible, preventable tragedy, apparently caused by an under-capable pilot doing something exceptionally dumb.

The show’s thrust was that this was an accident waiting to happen because (unlike big carriers) regional airlines are cutting corners on safety in order to raise profits. Accompanied by appropriate dark music, this was the typical kind of scaremonger show that makes you feel you don’t ever want to get on one of those death-trap planes.

“Flying Cheap” made it sound as though holding down costs to boost profits is some unique pathology of regional airlines. Of course, that’s untrue, cost control is essential to any business. If you can’t minimize costs, some competitor will do so, and you’ll no longer be providing service to the public. But while airlines do have this normal incentive to keep costs down, they also have a very powerful incentive to avoid crashes — which are extremely bad for business.

The show indicated that in the ’90s the big airlines changed their business model to include alliances with small regional carriers like Colgan. This was made to seem sinister. Actually, the airlines had to change something — because they were losing buckets of money. The big picture of the airline business is that, over its entire history, its cumulative profits have been approximately zero. That’s right, zero. In other words, the public has benefited from trillions of miles of air travel, but the providers of it have made no appreciable money on it. So much for greedy capitalist bloodsucking.

And episodes like the Buffalo crash are vastly outnumbered by tens of thousands of uneventful flights. While the show made it sound like safety is being seriously compromised, the whole system is still robustly engineered to avoid crashes. The planes can practically fly themselves, and seemingly miraculously defy the most turbulent weather. And the system is full of fail-safes. Pilots are backed up by copilots, both are backed up by air traffic controllers, and instruments can generally compensate for errors by all of them. So a lot of scary things may happen, but still crashes are extremely rare.

Yet, at one point in the show, the voice-over ominously stated: “The absence of accidents doesn’t mean flying is safe.

Excuse me?

What does safe mean? That there’s no possibility of an accident? Well then, of course flying isn’t safe. Nor is anything else in life. (My father recently died because he stumbled getting into a theater seat and hit his throat.) Frontline’s notion of safety is a misconceived fantasy. (And remember that, no matter how “safe” we think we are, the human mortality rate is still 100%.)

Frontline’s assumption seemed to be that even one crash killing 51 people is too many. It’s a noble sentiment, and undeniably true in a sense. But what would Frontline think of a transport system that has hundreds of thousands of crashes annually, killing over thirty thousand Americans? That, in fact, is car travel. (I feel hugely safer on a plane than in a car.)

But we accept the highway death toll because, with common sense, we recognize that safety is a relative concept, that there is no such thing as absolute safety, and there are always trade-offs among cost and convenience and safety. We could manufacture cars much safer, but they would cost a lot more, so fewer people could afford cars; and could also reduce crashes with speed limits of 10 mph. Most of us would not accept this, and we’d be right. Car travel represents a reasonable accommodation with risk.

Likewise, we could in theory make flying even safer than it is, and crashes would be even more rare. That would of course raise costs, and thus ticket prices. But the system is already only marginally profitable, at best. Higher prices would mean fewer trips would be affordable. An air transport system that is significantly safer would probably not be economically viable. Planes wouldn’t fly at all.

Well, that’s one way to prevent crashes.

One Response to “Scairmongery”

  1. Denis Says:

    I just wanted to tell you, that you have got loyal followers! 🙂

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