The Tao of Risk – And Why Air Travel Is A Lot Safer Than You Think

If you watched Gordon’s video last week about his thoughts on the grounding of the world’s Boeing 737 Max fleet, your brain may be in a bit of a whirl. It is so hard to think through the topic of travel safety with a cool head.

And let’s face it, statistics rarely seem to help us get things straight.

Pulkovo International Airport in Saint Petersburg, Russia
Pulkovo International Airport in Saint Petersburg, Russia

We’ve all heard that flying is safer than driving. We know that modern aircraft are absolutely marvels of engineering that use some absolutely astonishing technology that can handle just about any situation conceivable. And yet – stepping onto that plane, and setting foot in a new land with all the challenges and uncertainties that such a journey can bring…it always feels a risky leap into the dark.

So what if I told you it’s actually riskier to stay at home?

More on that shortly. But first, let’s lean into those air travel statistics a little, because there’s something that’s often missed in discussions about travel safety, and that’s scale.

Let’s say you were getting on a commercial airliner in the mid 1920s. You settle into your seat, the props start roaring, and your plane bumps its merry way down the runway. How safe should you be feeling right now?

For the less than 6,000 passengers using commercial aircraft in the United States at this time, they had good reason to have their hearts in their mouths. Between 1926 and 1927, there were 24 fatal commercial air crashes worldwide. Adjusted proportionally to the modern day, this is the equivalent of an insane-sounding 7,000 crashes per year. Gulp.

1928 wasn‘t a lot better, with 16 fatal air accidents – and 1929’s total was a truly horrific-sounding 51 fatal air crashes.

Airport with many airplanes at beautiful sunset
Airport with many airplanes at sunset

But the big change here is in scale. In 1926, commercial aviation had barely left the runway, yet by 1929, around 173,000 passengers were taking to the skies over the United States – almost 29 times the number of people taking flights three years previously.

Skip to the present day. In 2017, there were 10 air crashes around the world – less than any of the “bad old years” of aviation safety in the Twenties. But what a difference a century makes. In 2017, there were over 4 billion passengers taking flights around the world – which was an increase of 7.3% from the previous year’s figure.

In other words, as a passenger in 2017, you had a one-in-400-million chance of meeting disaster by taking a flight. Compare that with the chance of winning the average lottery (1 in 20-45 million) and you start to see how this really adds up.

Within a hundred years, the dangers of travelling by air have essentially vanished. If you draw a graph for air accidents per commercial flight, the curve drops to zero and basically vanishes.

So yes, it’s safer than driving (if you’re in the States, you have around a one in 7,000 chance of surviving the average road trip) – but it’s safer by such a degree that by comparison, there is essentially no risk in flying whatsoever.

But yeah. Statistics. Those things that don’t really settle our nerves and tackle our fears in a way that speaks the language of our hearts.

So let’s literally bring this argument home.

If you’re looking for something to really worry about, be careful about how you get up in the morning. Around 130 people a year depart this world by falling out of their beds. We all have around a one in 20,000 chance of arising without slipping on something and sustaining a fatal injury.

On paper, showering is even more dangerous. 16,000 people per year die by falling out of a shower. Next, the potentially horrors of breakfast: 17,000 people a year suffering serious injuries from their own cooking (including 2,000 doing themselves an injury prying apart food that’s got frozen together, instead of leaving it to thaw by the window like sensible folk).

Dishwashers! 7,000 Americans annually suffer scalds and burns from opening the dishwater door before the cycle has finished. (Brits are a little more careful – 1,300 a year – perhaps because most of us refer to use an utterly irrational plastic bowl in the sink method).

Overall, it’s possible to take a tour of the average home and find a much greater level of risk of injury than you’d find outside that home’s front door.

That’s what the numbers say – and of course, they feel like complete nonsense. Of course you’re going to be fine tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. This is home, where you’re safest!

Now – take that feeling of being absolutely, comfortably, resoundingly safe, and remove 90% of the risk from it. That’s the statistical reality of many forms of world travel.

Why is the real-world accuracy of our perception of risk so off-kilter?

Part of the reason is the news media. What we regard as “the news” is usually a cherry-picked version of the very worst things that have happened in our country and around the globe. By definition, “news-worthiness” is an obsession with the spectacularly unusual – and, a lot more often than not, the alarmingly horrible.

Imagine for a second that your news scaled to reality, so you got everything – not just the weirdly bad stuff, but also every instance of people around the world having a perfectly normal day. Instantly, “the news” would disappear and be replaced with updates like “today, around 7.7 billion people had a completely normal day in which nothing unusual happened”.

And that would be the news tomorrow, and the day after.

Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand
Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand

Imagine you somehow got a notification of every flight taken in the world. In 2018 there were around 38 million airline flights, which is a rate of around 72 flights a minute. Imagine your phone buzzing every second to tell you that yet another flight, filled with hundreds of people, had been completed entirely successfully.

That buzzing would continue (for every second of every minute of every day) nearly 4 million times before you got a notification of a plane crash from somewhere round the world.

Flying is amazingly safe. Risk is not what it often feels like. And the world is an awful lot safer than you’ve been led to believe by what’s on the news.

But here’s the flip-side to risk, and why it’s worth embracing. Risk is both good and bad, yin and yang – and it’s the source of one of the great joys of travel.

What we feel as risk can really be called “uncertainty”, the chance that anything could happen when we surrender control of our surroundings and our well-being to other people and places. We can’t predict what will happen next – yet what usually happens (statistics confidently tell us), is something good – and occasionally, just occasionally, something really magical.

Risk is the wellspring from which serendipity arises. It’s what gives you those incredible moments on journeys where everything is so perfect and you feel so alive and you can’t quite believe you’re really here. It gives you those personal human connections that turn into lifelong friendships and treasured memories. It gives you joyous surprise, emotional overwhelm, and fascinated wonder.

It’s the greatest gift of travel – and the only requirement is accepting a little more uncertainty into your life than you’re usually accustomed to.

(Perhaps with the help of a seasoned tour guide, who has spent his entire career keeping people safe without getting in the way of those special, unplanned moments of joy and revelation.)

The world is waiting – and it’s a lot friendlier than you might think. Shouldn’t you go see what’s out there?

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