The fear factor… Public perceptions about safety are our business

by Mark Baker
AOPA President & CEO
Published online Midwest Flyer Magazine – February/March 2021

Pre-Coronavirus, global air travel was at an all-time high. Between 8,000 and 20,000 aircraft could be flying at any given moment. In the United States alone, some 2.7 million passengers passed in and out of our nation’s airports every day before the pandemic. Most of us routinely boarded commercial flights, traveled for business, or piloted our own aircraft without blinking an eye. But, for some Americans aviophobia—the fear of flying—is a reality (nobody reading this, of course). And that’s before the global pandemic added to our general fears. 

Despite commercial aviation being the safest mode of transportation, anxious fliers make up nearly one in three people. But the chances of being in a fatal airplane crash are extremely low—roughly 1 in 5 million, according to reports from such outlets as The Economist. Automobiles, lightning strikes, bee stings, and—as we’ve learned lately—even viruses can be much deadlier than air travel. Even so, many people are plagued by anxiety when it comes to flight, likely propelled by over-sensationalized pop culture.

Because aviation accidents are so rare, they tend to be spotlighted in the media, although not always accurately. In the world of the 24-hour news cycle, ratings-hungry reporters are eager to get the story quickly. Unfortunately, aviation is complex, making it a target for mischaracterization by those who just don’t understand everything that’s in play. I’ve seen countless correspondents and aviation “experts” on national news networks delivering exaggerated or misleading information—from comical to downright bizarre. And, sometimes troubling.

For example, a crash involving a student pilot was accompanied by a photo of a downed commercial airliner. Either training aircraft have evolved since I learned to fly, or the media is baiting its audience with a disregard for the facts. All too often, reporters are shocked at the age of an aircraft involved in a mishap, though the majority of our GA fleet is roughly 40 to 50 years old, and still equipped with required top-notch safety equipment. Another common misconception is that a “stalled” aircraft will just fall out of the sky like a rock. Even nonevents, such as crosswind landings or diversions because of mechanical or onboard medical issues, make headlines with words like “emergency” or “miraculous.”

Crashes involving high-profile celebrities usually amplify public perceptions about safety. The helicopter tragedy in January 2020 that killed nine, including basketball great Kobe Bryant, was the lead story for weeks. With that coverage came speculation fueled by emotion, which left many with questions about GA. Such incidents can provoke knee-jerk reactions from legislators and public figures, calling for more regulation on an otherwise safety-conscious industry. In extreme cases, crashes at local airports may incite city leaders to even call for their closure. 

Aviation is one of the most regulated industries in the United States. Safety is embedded in our culture. Since 1994, the fatal accident rate for GA has fallen more than 50 percent. Technological advances, pilots consuming more safety materials, and increased flying hours all have contributed to these record safety levels. 

Still, skeptics remain unconvinced, and probably always will. Much of that has to do with the alarmism cascading from our news networks and social media in the aftermath of incidents. But there are things we can do as an aviation community and within the industry to address the stigma. 

We can do better individually. As we’ve all seen, sometimes the go/no-go decision is the difference between life and death. We should strive to consume as much safety material as possible and learn from tragedy. AOPA’s Air Safety Institute has numerous award-winning safety resources including podcasts, online courses, quizzes, videos, and in-person seminars. 

We can also study the numbers. The release of ASI’s latest Joseph T. Nall Report brings positive news to the GA industry with data showing that 2017 saw a decrease in total accidents from 2016. While 2018 saw a slight increase in total accidents, it’s important to note that the overall and fatal accident rates continued downward trends. ASI has completed a major overhaul of the report to provide near-real-time accident data analysis as the data are updated on a rolling 30-day cycle. 

Let’s focus on what we can do to better improve safety records for general aviation and tune out the rest. When the next big air tragedy strikes, I won’t hold my breath waiting for the media to accurately gather the facts—because, as we know, sensationalism sells.

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