For millions of people, travel by air is a confounding, uncomfortable, and even fearful experience. Patrick Smith, airline pilot and author of the web's popular Ask the Pilot feature, separates the fact from fallacy and tells you everything you need to know...
I heard the author of this book interviewed on CBC radio and decided that it wouldn’t hurt me to get a bit of reassurance from a pilot, especially given the amount of air travel that I do in pursuit of my hobbies. I am not a nervous flier by nature, but I know people who are and hoped to gain a few words of wisdom to comfort them with.
I didn’t really care too much about airline logos and the mechanics of seniority among pilots, just to mention a couple of subjects that Smith covers. I found the coverage of issues that scare people to be done quite well, but it was a very small portion of the book. And I have to wonder how comforted they will remain when they get to the list of worst airline crashes in history—at least, as he points out, none of them are recent and technology has changed a great deal during the intervening years.
Basically, my own general feelings on flying were reinforced by this book—pilots and flight crew would not willingly sign up for these jobs if they felt that their lives were in danger in any way. Since there are many people applying for each and every pilot’s job that comes available, it would seem most pilots feel pretty secure about the safety of flying. Even small planes and obscure airlines have the same technology to work with and are safer than driving. He quotes a study in American Scientist magazine: "...if a passenger chooses to drive rather than fly the distance of a typical flight segment, that person is sixty-five times more likely to be killed." This has been a belief of mine for many years, but people are still willing to get into vehicles and drive without being freaked out by the thousands of traffic deaths that take place each year. (I actually do get a bit unnerved by having passengers in my car—I feel ultra-responsible for their welfare until I deliver them safely to the end destination, but this is a result of my parents being killed in a car crash while I was in my mid-thirties).
Notable facts: turbulence, even when it’s bad, is an inconvenience rather than a hazard. You could be bumped, bruised, or have hot coffee spilled on you. The first two can be avoided by keeping your seat belt done up—there really is a reason that they ask you to do that. Also, even when crossing the Himalayas, there is always time to reach a safe altitude should the airplane lose pressure. Don’t hyperventilate into the rubber cup over your mouth and nose, you are still very safe. Plus, your plane has oodles of fuel on board to cope with possible detours and/or delays, so don’t get panicky if the airport is crowded and you end up circling it for a while.
Re: health concerns, the air in the cabin is supplemented with fresh air from the engine compressors, so we’re not breathing only recycled air. The reason that I catch a cold more often when I fly is very prosaic—it’s all those hard surfaces that we all touch, the touch screen TV, seat belt buckles, tray tables, bathroom door handles, probably even those well-thumbed magazines in the seat pocket. Smith recommends some hand sanitizer (in the regulation small bottles). I like some of that and usually use a disinfectant wipe on all of the hard surfaces in and around my seat, I don’t care how crazy I may look to my surrounding passengers as I swipe like a demented cleaning lady!
Having heard Captain Smith’s interview on CBC last year, I knew that he had said that lightning hitting a plane is not unusual and that it rarely causes any damage. Imagine my surprise in March when I saw lightning hit the plane that I was in going from Bogata to Caracas! I was even more puzzled when the pilot announced that we were returning to Bogata, instead of completing the flight. I have come to the conclusion that it was the political situation in Venezuela that caused our turn around, rather than damage—they didn’t want to have anything wrong that might possibly prevent getting right back out of Venezuela. I can’t say I blame the crew, although it turned my 8.5 hour layover in Bogata into a 26.5 hour marathon layover.
My final thought: This book is no substitute for psychological help if you have an ingrained phobia about flying. I think in that case, you would be much better off finding a mental health professional who could work with you on de-sensitizing your fears. Those like me, who are basically comfortable, will find the words you need to understand the flying environment better and stay happy.