The Miracle of Flight

A recent post on asked readers to comment on a plan to install rear-facing seats on airplanes.

The options for commenting were basically: a) I don’t like it b) I like it fine; and c) Whatever, no comment, who cares, people should just be happy airlines provide the miracle of flight, so let them do whatever they want.

For the most part, I am in camp C. I am constantly amazed at how unamazed we are at the efficacy, safety, and low cost of airline travel – and especially at the engineering marvel that it represents. Even though I have a brother who is a pilot, and have had the science of flight explained to me many times, the whole prospect still strikes me as something bordering on the miraculous. Yesterday, getting ready to take off in Washington, D.C., I watched as the plane ahead of us swooped skyward, the Washington Monument gleaming in the background, and I was pretty much awestruck by the sight.

What awes me most about commercial air travel is the safety. I was reminded of this today when reading a Reuters article that summarized a new safety report from an industry group called the International Air Transport Association. It noted that Russia and the other C.I.S. members are still, as in previous years, the most dangerous places in the world to fly, with an accident rate 13 times the global average. (This is why my wife, who spent years in Russia as a photographer, always referred to the national airline as “Aeroflop.”) But the real news is that, even including Russia, there were only 77 major global accidents in 2006, down from 111 in 2005. “That’s one accident per 1.5 million flights on Western-built aircraft,” as USA Today noted.

One accident per 1.5 million flights! That’s the equivalent of you and 100 of your friends taking one flight every day of the year for 40 years straight. For something as complicated as flying, this is a monumentally low fail rate. Furthermore, as USA Today summarized, the key factors in the accidents were “bad weather, miscommunication and lapses in crew training.” But not, notably, equipment failure or aeronautical miscalculation.

Like most people who fly a lot, I find it all too easy to track the minor and major infractions committed by airline companies. In just the past week, I witnessed at least a half dozen idiocies. But I’m going to put them aside. Especially this week, with the horrible news of the Virginia Tech shooting and a focus on the things that occasionally go wrong in any given society, I’d rather simply appreciate something that so often goes so right.

The families of those Virginia Tech victims will be doing a lot of flying this week, and with all their sorrow, the last thing they should have to worry about is their own safety as they get on an airplane. Fortunately, they don’t have to.


ajkrik: There are already many thousands of private flights every day in North America (fewer in Europe, due to over regulation and high costs). Fortunately, small planes don't crash into houses very often -- not nearly as often as cars or trucks -- and when they do, they typically cause less damage than a medium-sized tree landing on the roof.


I'd have to see the BussMetric Brand Association Map on the topic of flight safety before feeling informed enough to comment


The contrast between the air transportation system and the automobile transportation system is what amazes me. The accident and injury rate for driving in your car is far higher and yet people are fine with just hopping in their car and driving wherever in any weather but scared to death to ride in an airplane in perfect weather. Also, picture today's world without automobiles (difficult but bear with me). Can you imagine that someone would be able to introduce a new transportation system like cars? A system where relatively untrained people in uncertified states of mind and body would be able to hurtle down a paved path in enormous metal structures at ungoverned rates of speed in close quarters. And then there's the hue and cry today's environmentalist would create over creating the highway system in the first place. It would never happen. And yet, we're content to allow such a system to continue because it is too ingrained in our culture.



The number of variables that favor flight safety over automobile travel is astounding. I wonder how much can be attributed to just engineering between the two types of travel?

I'm still waiting for my flying car, not only for the cool factor, but then we can be have statistics comparing flying car safety vs. regular car safety vs. airplane safety.


I'm a little confused by

"But the real news is that, even including Russia, there were only 77 major global accidents in 2006, down from 111 in 2005."


“That's one accident per 1.5 million flights on Western-built aircraft.”

I'm assuming "that" refers to the preceding sentence; however, I would guess that most of the flights in Russia are not on Western-built aircraft. Is that a bad assumption?


If you want something with a truly low fail rate, how about the human heart?

If you have made it to the age of fifty without having any heart trouble, your heart has beat in the vicinity of 1.6 billion times without ever having a single problem.

For an organ as complex as the human heart, that's pretty amazing.

Now if only other mechanical objects like my car worked so well!


But I would still ask anyone if they would rather drive or fly


I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the implications of requiring psych evals for gun permits.


Stephen: pop over to one of the general aviation airports circling NYC (Caldwell/Essex Co. might be a good choice, but Farmingdale/Republic is easy to reach on the LIR) and take a $50, 30-minute intro flight in a small plane at any of the flight schools. You'll do most or all of the flying, the whole process will seem less mysterious, and you'll have material for another blog posting.



You're very right about the seeming miracle of flight: complicated machines using enormous forces to move very fast in a sometimes hostile environment. My question is why can't more things in our lives--computers, cars, appliances, anything mechanical--be just as reliable? Maybe it has to do with the machine being the source of revenue and having much attention devoted to regular maintenance, but if aircraft crashed half as often as most computers nobody would be willing to fly.


People like driving. If you factor in long distance driving versus the 25 miles from home driving, how safe is driving? (Not to suggest it would still approach the safety rate of commercial air flight.)
Question: If you had your own flying car would crash rates be like commercial flight? or as dangerous as driving a car? I would much prefer to live on a surface that wasn't at risk from some drunk stiff crashing his plane on trip over to the local floating liquor store.

And, the sense of being trapped in a plane sucks for me. If people drove around in a tube with tiny windows and some pain in the ass steward telling me to sit down all the time, all driven by a couple of potentially sleepy or drugged out "drivers" people would be less inclined to prefer car trips.



I just got in the mail today my signed Freakonomics sticker! Not too bad of a turn-around rate from when I signed up to get one, nice work. In elementary school I wrote a letter to Ken Griffey Jr. and in high school I got a letter back with his signature stamped on the bottom. Given their backgrounds, I'd expect a rockstar-esque signature from Dubner, but Levitt's was surprisingly so. Thanks guys, keep up the good work.


This post rocks. I enjoy driving my car, but am more wary of being on the highway on a weekend evening than of flying. I LOVE flying and travel quite frequently (I've already gone on about 10 different trips with my 18 month old son). I am still equally amazed by the whole concept and I appreciate how eloquently you explained that feeling of awe.


dpm: :) That's fair enough. But if private flights became 1/10th as common as cars in LA there would be a lot more "trees" falling on houses.
I am only mildly stressed while flying . . . it has to do with being out of control. (I like to be the driver too.) But in a reliable car getting 50 miles per gallon there's nothing better than driving the roads.


Flying when I was young (35 yrs ago) was quite an impressive (and expensive) experience. I did most of mine then on a corporate expense account.

Now it's the "human cattle car" and unless it's over a 1000 miles, I'm gonna drive.


Of course the "low cost of airline travel", as with so much, like acid rain or mercury in the lakes, is because we don't pay the actual cost to society as a whole. We dump it into everything around us and believe it can be ignored.

Not anymore. I hope.


"One accident per 1.5 million flights! That's the equivalent of you and 100 of your friends taking one flight every day of the year for 40 years straight."

I understand the point, but as a hypothetical, it's not the best. No matter how astounding that figure really is, I don't want to think about dying in a horrible plane crash in the next 40 years. ;)

As for why people prefer cars... I think it has to do with control. Statistically, yes, driving may be more dangerous; but you know most people consider themselves above average (how's that for statistics?).


So this means that a pilot who flys just about every day for an entire career has a 1% chance of crashing?

I wouldn't take those odds.


As to rear facing seats, although I understand that they are safer, I get sick easily when in a plane flying "backwards." With the monumentally low accident rate of planes, I'd rather just take my chances and not be sick the whole flight.


Haven't this blog suggested that planes should be flown by a computer, or better yet, by a pilot remotely flying a plane from the ground? Why change something that works so well it's a "miracle?" To cut costs?

Also, I think if planes become so affordableand accessible that anybody can own them, like cars today, we would have a drop in safely. Everybody would think their pilot skills are "above average." "Flying under the influence." "Sky rage." But at least the market would be democratized.