Last week, a plane (Boeing 737) flying from Ethiopia to Kenya crashed, killing all 157 passengers plus crew on board. Those who perished were of 35 different nationalities. This came less than six months after a Boeing 737 MAX 8 went down into the Java Sea, just minutes after taking off. 189 people died then.
Ethiopian Airlines, operating the ill-fated plane, are considered to be relatively safe. 6 out of 7 on the rating scale. Even though the cause of those crashes is yet to be determined, this particular type of an airplane (Boeing 737 MAX 8) has been grounded indefinitely worldwide.
What could have gone wrong in Ethiopia? The flight data recorder from the previous crash revealed an issue with the aircraft’s air speed indicator. Supposedly the indicator was malfunctioning during its last FOUR flights. How lucky were the people on the flights before the crash?
All clues point to the new safety system in that particular type of plane. Some safety system, huh? Those who analyzed the crash from late last year, paint a vivid picture of what happened. The new system called MCAS’s (short for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) job is to pull the plane’s nose down if it senses it is at risk. During the Lion Air flight, the sensor “thought” that the nose was tilted more than it should be, which could cause stalling. Then, the pilots tried to correct the machine’s errors, but every time they thought they did, the system would override it and go back to what it was doing. Supposedly, after the Indonesian crash, Boeing sent an urgent bulletin asking that all pilots be trained on recognizing the potential dangers of the system and know how to switch it off.
If you want to know more about planes, tech and software, I found an insightful article HERE.
Should we learn to trust the machines, or should we rally and support the humans?
Yesterday, the mourners gathered in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia’s capital) to pay their respects and to honor those who died in the crash. Even though there were coffins present on sight, there were no bodies in them. Authorities are working on obtaining DBNA samples and matching them to those found at the crash site. However, due to the impact, it is hard to find the missing pieces. In an effort to give people closure for the time being, officials allowed the mourners to obtain about a kilo of soil from the crash site.
The crash and its aftermath made me think of the psychology of fear. I fly quite a bit, and have felt safe in an airplane since I was a little kid. However, having watched all these plane disaster movies, I am more aware of what could go wrong now than ever before. Hearing news about plane crashes does not help the matter.
I know people who are petrified of flying.
I know people who have never been on a plane, and probably never will.
But they drive a car.
“What does that have to do with anything” – you ask?
It just makes me think of how irrational some things can be.
Someone kills with the use of a gun and we run to ban such weapons. But we are blind to the fact that a gun is not the only thing that can be used in such a devious way. No, it was not the gun’s fault. It was the person’s who pulled the trigger. There are many more nuances than that, and this is not that type of post.
Today, I want to talk about why we fear one thing way more than the other. About why we fear planes so much more than cars, for example.
It is safe to say that your fears are not the same as mine. However, there are five categories of fear that pretty much all of us share.
- Loss of autonomy
- Separation (abandonment)
- Ego-death (fear of humiliation)
Does anyone NOT fear those?
In those two crashes, 346 people died. Sounds like a lot, right? Do you know how many people die in a car accident every day in the U.S.? One hundred and ten. That means that it takes just a bit over 3 days of car accidents to kill as many people as those two crashes did. If you were to divide those passengers over the time period between those two incidents, you would find out that less than 3 people a day died in a plane accident. 110 vs. 3. And yet more people seem to fear the airplanes than the cars. Before those two fatal flights, there were thousands of perfectly safe ones. However, the planes are grounded, while cars still drive.
It is the perceived risk vs. the actual risk that explains why we do not always fear what we should, and why we fear things that are less risky. We often rely on availability heuristic when estimating probability of something happening. The more difficult an event is to imagine, the less probable it is to happen. At least that is what we tend to think. More dramatic events stand out in our memories more than other events, making us fear them more. Moreover, we are not all that good at accurately assessing risk, because we use two different parts of our brain. The first one is the amygdala, which is responsible for the emotional response to a situation. The neocortex is the one responsible for the actual analysis. Even though we have the numbers and the statistics, the amygdala tends to push the emotions into the forefront and the logic to the back.
Bonus fun fact: If you were to fly every day all your life, statistically speaking, it would take you nineteen thousand years to die in a plane crash.
How insane is that?
Why are we afraid of plane crashes?
- When a plane crashes, the media coverage is intense.
- The crashes do not happen often, but when they do, they shake us all.
- We cannot control a plane (while we are more in control of a car).
- Cars are more familiar to us and we use them habitually (it is the opposite for planes).
Have you ever been on a plane?
Are you afraid of flying?
Do you do anything to decrease your flying-related anxiousness?
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