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 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 8:17 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT