Should we be afraid of flying?

by Daria Semochkina

Do you know how many people are afraid of flying? I’m not one of them, I actually quite enjoy flying.

I like both the process of flying and the associated anticipation of a new adventure. But for 30-35% of people just a thought of getting on a plane is the reason for a panic attack. Did you realise that every time you fly, about 30-50 of the 150 passengers (on average) are in complete terror and cringe into their seats every time they hear a sound? Those people are not only afraid of what is (statistically speaking) the safest transport in the world, but they are afraid of the process that has the smallest associated risk out of all the processes that I could find a risk for. I personally have friends with degrees in law or mathematics (Hi James!) and, as I learned recently, they are terrified of flying. Do you think they are as terrified of getting a lift from a friend after they had a pint? Don’t think so.


But why does that happen? What is the difference between our perceptions of risk versus the actual risk and why are people so biased? Let’s take aviation as an example here. For years, the aviation industry thought that their job was to transport people from A to B, not to explain anything to people about safety procedures or control systems. I only just learned that, apparently, there are tree fail-safes you can use to stop Boeing 767 after touchdown, and it is unheard of anyone having to use any of them ever. And the only reason I now know that is because I was researching for this blog. But in this vacuum of knowledge, where do people get information about planes and the associated statistics of its safety? Of course it comes from mass media, reporting on something going wrong. They don’t report that “today 140,000 planes took off, reached their destination and nothing happened, no passengers were scratched”. And more importantly, no one would read such reports. However, any emergency landings (due to anything as minor as a malfunctioning light in the cockpit) are being reported as sensational news. The mass media gladly report about “another, already fifth this year, emergency landing of this type of aircraft”. But that’s the absolute number, what is the relative frequency? What is the actual risk?

Let’s say you stay at home and do nothing, not even go outside that day. Are your chances of dying higher or lower, that dying in an air crash? If you live in a big city like Moscow and you are one of 10 million people there (although, arguably, that’s underestimating it by a mile, but I like pretty numbers). What are your chances of dying on the ground? Of course, you can then say: “Yeah, but you consider all people in the city, old and sick. I’m young and healthy; my risk of dying is small, where in the air it’s much higher. Plus, on the ground I’m in control, where as in the air I’m in the hands on other people”. Ok, that is a valid point and it is true, your risk of dying is lower if you are young and healthy, but let’s do the maths. There are approximately 138,000 flights a day; that adds up to 48 million flights a year, carrying 5 billion passengers. Some of those people sadly die (on average, 500 people die a year in plane crashes). So the relative risk of dying is 1 in 10 million. This corresponds to 1 person dying in the entire city of Moscow a year. It is somewhat intuitively obvious that any other activity in Moscow (on the ground) will carry a higher risk of dying. In fact, getting out of bed and going to work will give you a 1 in a million chance of dying, which is 10 times more dangerous. So, funnily enough, you are increasing your chances of dying by not flying!

We tend to overestimate the risk of catastrophic (but rare) events that are in the news and underestimating common risks such as driving, even while tired. I’ve attached a comparative diagram (© Susanna Hertrich) of perception of risk vs actual risk. I don’t know if you expected such a drastic difference and the terrifying reality of your chances of dying in a car crash. I personally hoped it would be lower than that. However, that incredibly (or relatively) high risk never stopped anyone from getting into a taxi for a night out and feeling completely safe. The perception of those risks has nothing to do with reality.


So why do people continue to behave like modern-day Don Quixote, attacking windmills that they believe to be ferocious giants? The intent of our estimation of risk is to save us from the danger of dying. And yet we misunderstand it completely and guard ourselves from some exceptionally safe things and won’t give a second thought to doing things that are actually extremely dangerous. And that is just because we are used to those things and do or see them every day. I’m not a psychologist and I don’t know why does our brain decide to scream “SOS” in an unusual (but, as it turns out, safe) situation.

So I will leave you with this: just because you believe the risk is real does not make it real.

 Daria Semochkina is a PhD student in MACSI working with Professor Cathal Walsh, Chair of Statistics in the University of Limerick

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