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Feeling Lucky?

Remember the DC-10? I’m dating myself by telling you that I recall flying on the widebody jet when I was about nine years old. I couldn’t have been much older than that because all of the ones operating in the U.S. were grounded for a while in June 1979. This came after the deadliest airline crash in U.S. history not related to terrorism, American Airlines Flight 191, which killed 273 people. A much longer grounding, more than a year-and-a-half, resulted from the deaths of 346 people in two crashes of the Boeing 737 MAX. And all U.S. air traffic was shut down for days after the 9/11 terror attacks almost 20 years ago which resulted in almost 3,000 fatalities.

While I’m not arguing that any of these were overreactions, they are a sign of how bad we are at weighing danger. I remember many people saying that, even once cleared to fly, they wouldn’t get on a DC-10 or a 737 MAX. Many skipped flying altogether for months after 9/11. Yet there seems to be virtually no concern today about a threat that killed 1,275 Americans in just the past two days – the Covid-19 pandemic.

Proms are going on unmasked, basketball arenas are full of fans with a few people wearing them draped around their chins, and airplanes are packed. Thank goodness 50% of American adults have now been fully vaccinated, but that leaves half who haven’t been. The people who are most likely to eat in a crowded indoor eatery or other high risk activities are also less-likely to be among the half concerned enough about catching or passing on the coronavirus to ever get a vaccine.

I’m not advocating for a lockdown, but the lack of caution is interesting. Somehow two or three hundred deaths from an air disaster gets us spooked, a few thousand dead from a domestic terror incident has us terrified, but 600 deaths a day with many more hospitalized are an acceptable risk.

Why do we think this way? Is it that a deadly fireball on the evening news seems scarier than the abstract thought of hundreds of people spread all over the country who are probably strangers gasping for breath and dying alone of a respiratory illness? An alternate explanation is that 600 is a whole lot better than the 3,000 plus a day who were dying back in January and that we’ve put the danger in perspective. 

The second explanation might be convincing if it weren’t for the fact that lots of people weren’t being at all careful then either. My family and I drove from New Jersey to Florida for our one and only trip of the pandemic over New Year’s. As soon as we got south of the DC suburbs the level of caution began to evaporate. Pee breaks were filled with anxiety as we walked into rural convenience stores and motel lobbies where patrons and employees seemed blithely unaware of the global pandemic.

But then maybe we were the ones who misunderstood risk. In terms of fatalities per mile traveled, a road trip in non-Covid times is about 750 times as likely to be fatal per mile as a plane journey. Being locked in a pressurized metal tube with a hundred or so mostly-masked strangers for a few hours each way might not have been too much more likely to result in infection than those bathroom breaks. 

All’s well that ends well as we didn’t get sick or crash, but maybe we would have been safer flying — even in a DC-10.

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