Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Our terror over flying has cost us

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Thu July 11, 2013
In this handout photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 sits just off the runway at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, July 7. The Boeing 777 coming from Seoul, South Korea, crashed on landing on Saturday, July 6. Three passengers, all girls, died as a result of the first notable U.S. air crash in four years. In this handout photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 sits just off the runway at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, July 7. The Boeing 777 coming from Seoul, South Korea, crashed on landing on Saturday, July 6. Three passengers, all girls, died as a result of the first notable U.S. air crash in four years.
HIDE CAPTION
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis once on flight that made aborted landing, then landed safely
  • She says fatalities rare but air travel draws primal fear that dangerous travel modes don't
  • She says 9/11 drastically changed the cost of flying; U.S. spends lavishly on air safety
  • Ghitis: While relatively safe, will never be completely predictable or 100% incident free

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns.

(CNN) -- Everything looked perfectly normal as the plane prepared to land. I fastened my seat belt and looked through the window, watching the toy cars on the highway below gradually grow to life-size, and the airport runway rapidly -- too rapidly, perhaps -- move almost within arms' reach. The plane touched down, barreled ahead on the tarmac for a couple of seconds, and suddenly raised its nose and roared back up to the sky pressing us against our seat backs while climbing at a frighteningly steep angle.

What happened, we wondered wordlessly. What's coming next?

What came next was an anxious circling back to the airport followed by a smooth landing and not much of an explanation about what had gone wrong. By then, our heartbeats had mostly returned to normal.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

The story did not end the same way for passengers of Asiana flight 214, which crashed on landing in San Francisco last weekend, leaving two young women dead and scores injured.

The Asiana disaster continues to rivet our attention. We want to know exactly what went wrong. But that's not only because it was a terrible tragedy for many families. It's that air flight commands so much interest.

The San Francisco disaster is receiving much more attention, for example, than the horrifying runaway train crash in Canada that razed a town and killed at least 15 people, with another 45 still missing. We give far more attention to plane crashes that kill a small number of people than to, say, car fatalities, which killed more than 32,000 people in the U.S. alone last year.

Each death is devastating and should be mourned, but our attention, in proportion to the risk and the death "tool" is much greater when it comes to flying.

The experts have told us the statistics. Flying is almost perfectly safe. Even when disaster does occur, as with this weekend's flight, the numbers are extraordinary. More than 99.3% of the 307 people on board the Asiana flight survived.

NTSB: Plane set in many autopilot modes
Alaska crash victims were 'spectacular'
Canadian police widen train investigation

It's much more dangerous to do almost anything, the statistics tell us, than to fly. Billions of people fly every year and almost zero percent of them die in the process. The risk is comparable, we're told, to that of dying from a ceiling collapse at a grocery store.

And yet, the reassuring statistics penetrate our collective fears as slowly as a worn drill bit cutting into stone.

Flying remains a surreal, magical experience, but one that -- even among those who will adamantly deny it -- is framed by a twinge of irrational fear. The experience of climbing on an airplane and watching it defy gravity, break through the clouds and glide across the sky remains a barely comprehensible human achievement; it feels like a challenge against the laws of nature.

Flying has a powerful emotional hold on us. There is something sublime about humans looking down upon the clouds. But the experience also packs the truth about our mortality more transparently than almost anything we do.

When we are sitting in that cargo-packed aluminum tube, mocking the earth's pull, the thought that something could go badly wrong tends to sneak into our consciousness. A spell of strong turbulence can sharply shift the collective mood on board, no matter what the statistics. It's no wonder some people refuse to fly without a strong infusion of thought-quieting alcohol.

It is that outsized emotional power of flight that makes plane crashes or news about near misses compel our attention, even when the casualties remain (fingers crossed!) so remarkably low.

There is, of course, a grave downside to the exalted place on which we keep our fear of air disaster. There is a reason terrorists have so often used flights as the means to inflict terror. They know we pay attention, they know we are primed for fear.

Not surprisingly, such a powerful primal response comes with a price tag. As a society, we spend enormous sums and we endure endless discomfort trying to do everything we can to make flying safe, or at least to make many of us feel as though we've made it safe.

The 9/11 attackers, who used passenger aircrafts as weapons produced such a strong reaction that they drastically changed the flying experience and the cost of flying. Some put the total 9/11 tally at trillions, most of it from America's intense reaction to the hit.

The Transportation Security Administration spends $8 billion per year shepherding us through endless security lines. We obediently stand in the queue, adding countless hours and enormous inconvenience, hoping it all amounts to more than security theatre.

In the aftermath of my aborted landing, I spent hours trying to dig out the facts of what had occurred, as I have done after other, much scarier flying experiences involving engine failures, jammed landing gears and blown tires. Anyone who has traveled extensively, particularly in remote parts of the world, has a few stories to tell about airborne misadventures.

First I asked a flight attendant what happened when I was leaving the plane. She said there was "probably" something blocking the runway on our first landing attempt. I looked up the public records of flight incidents and was surprised to find no sign of my obviously not routine incident. I called the airline and was told, much to my surprise, that these kinds of "touch and go" and "go around" incidents are quite routine, barely meriting a note in the log, and that there was probably another aircraft on the runway, perhaps an air traffic controller mistake.

Then I called the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA said their logs showed no sign that such a thing had occurred. I called the airline again, pointing to the FAA's denial of their story. After much insistence and many phone calls and emails I was finally told it was the pilot who "was not comfortable" with the landing he was executing.

Flying, it seems, will never be completely predictable or 100% incident free.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT