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May 09, 2012

A primer of the fear of flying and some creative solutions.


I'm Afraid of Not Flying

I had that horrible nightmare again last night. I'm on a flight to Washington DC for the annual Bloggers' Convention (I was nominated for the most creative use of typos). Anyway, I'm sitting next to Arianna Huffington and the woman just won't shut up (Dahling, you really must try da goolash, did you know dat Romney paid no taxes, don't you hate the republican potty?) - And then - BOOM goes the engine.  A voice comes on the intercom:
Yes, this is your Captain speaking. Our altitude is currently 30,000 feet. Okay, now it's 25,000 - holy shit - 15,000 feet. Anyway, we would like to thank you for dying with American Airlines......

I do believe in spooks. I do, I do
I do believe in spooks
And then I wake up in a cold sweat. I carefully peek under the blankets to make sure that Arianna hasn't somehow replaced Mi Esposa. Okay - Mi Esposa is fast asleep - it was just another plane related nightmare.
I know what you're thinking - first the hypochondria and now the fear of flying - just what kind of pussy are you? Hmmm - I think the correct answer is a big, fat balding but relatively happy kind of pussy - but let's be adults and move on from that.

Anyway, for clarification sakes - and speaking for all of my aero-anxiety friends, I don't have a fear of flying. I have a fear of not flying.  The concept of smoothly flying through the air and gently landing on mother earth is actually a very nice notion. It's the notion of a five minute plunge to the planet ending in a fiery crash that kind of bothers me. In other words, I have a fear of crashing - or, to put it more poetically, I have a fear of not flying. This fear of not flying was stuck in the deep recesses of my cerebral cortex until very recently. So, what started this most recent spate of plane crash related nightmares on my part you ask? - Easy - FUCKING BIRDS.

In the last two weeks the news had reports of two commercial planes that had to make emergency landings because of bird strikes and in that same time period Vice President Joe Biden's plane had to be repaired due to a bird strike upon landing in Santa Barbara, California. As a note, bird strike is the technical term used by aeronautic engineers for describing a fucking bird got sucked into the engine and crashed the plane.

You may recall that in 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger crash landed a plane in the Hudson river after both engines were disable after the plane through a flock of geese. The headlines screamed "Captain Sully - A Hero - Saves Passengers. As is typically the case, they buried the lead. There were only two headlines that should have run: (1) Really dude - Chesley?, and (2) Jesus Christo, Santa Maria - God damn birds destroy airplane (Note: I would have also accepted, Captain Sully Takes the Geesework out of Flying). 

 So I know what all my aero-anxiety friends were thinking - how is it that you can put a computer in my phone, but you can't figure out a way to keep a flock of seagulls (the birds - not the band) from destroying an airplane????? Really, - is that too much to ask? The bottom line is this - if even birds have plane crashes - why do you want me too believe that flying is safe? And more importantly - fix this problem! I mean, even forgetting public safety - wikipedia estimates that the costs of damages to airplanes from bird strikes is about $1.2 billion a year. Don't airlines need money?

My first thought was just a simple grill, like chicken wire or something over the front of the engines to keep the birds out. Sadly, that doesn't work as the force of the bird striking the grill would be of such a magnitude that not only would the bird go into the engine, the protective grill would as well. My favorite study of this was done by a fella named John Downer (could there be a better name for a guy studying plane crashes?) in his study entitled - When the Chick Hits The Fan. If you are morbidly curious - his full study is here:
Okay, if we can't use technology as a preventative measure, what about good old common sense. What keeps birds away from crops? - That's right - scarecrows.

I don't see any reason why every plane can't be equipped with a garden variety scarecrow to keep the birds away - at least at take off and landing. In the spirit of public safety, I will offer my design free of charge.

Okay, you don't like that idea. Well, what are birds mostly afraid of? - that's right - cats.

So what if we painted a face of the meanest cat in the world on the front of every airplane - wouldn't that keep the birds away?

Alright, how about a more aggressive measure. We can have helicopters fly around the air space each time before a plane takes off. They will either scare away the birds or decapitate them (I assume that they're calledchoppers for a reason). Don't like that? A little too violent?

How about we drug the birds, at least around the airport. All we have to do is dispose of all of our  out of date Xanax, Prosac and Valium in their drinking water and feeding areas and that'll numb them up enough to give up on their plane crashing pursuits. If it doesn't knock them out, it ought to at least be enough to sap their energy.

The bottom line is this - before I get my fat ass back in a plane I want to at least have the comfort that a flock of parakeets is the only thing that stands between me and certain death. I am sure one of the solutions that I have offered will work.

Okay, bird problem solved but sadly, that ain't enough for me to get back on a plane. There's still some other problems to deal with.

Let's start with airplane maintenance.

El ave - que se ha quedado atascado en el motor Over the past decade more and more of airplane maintenance is being outsourced to El Salvador, Singapore, Turkey and China. All bastions of fair labor practices and quality control. Pretty much all of the major airlines are doing this now.

As an example, as a cost cutting measure, United Airlines recently shut down it's major airplane maintenance facility in San Francisco and contracted it out to a firm in Beijing China. It is a trend that is happening across the industry. The greatest problem posed is that there are simply not enough folks in the FAA to monitor maintenance facilities across the globe and there is little assurance that maintenance is being done in the manner proscribed. If you are interested - more on this nightmare here: http://investigativereportingworkshop.org/investigations/flying-cheaper/story/outsourcing-airline-maintenance/

Basically, it is an industry wide problem. Now, I can appreciate the need for cost cutting measures - just not in instances where it involves a flying metal tube 30,000 feet off the ground and - sorry - I 'm just not comfortable flying in a plane that has been repaired in an unsupervised, un-inspected facility half way across the globe.

Moving on.

Our pilots are too God damn tired. The number one cause of plane crashes is pilot error and the number one   problem facing pilots is fatigue. It's not because of the hours they fly as much as it is the fact that some of their pay is so low that the only way they can survive as to have more than one job.
Tower One - this is - yawn - Delta Dawn Flight 207
If we could just get someone - yawn - to remove the dead bird
from the windshield, we're good to go - over

Now senior pilots with major airlines are doing just okay averaging around $80,000 a year. However, their First Officers are paid rather pathetically (an average of only $33,800 a year) and regional pilots are paid an abysmal wage.  According to Wiki - the following is a pilot's annual pay at our largest regional airlines:

  • American Eagle: $20,700
  • ComAir:             $20,640
  • Mesa:                 $19,152
  • Pinnacle             $18,900
  • SkyWest           $17,100
The fact that their flight time is controlled is meaningless because there is no way on earth (pun intended) that they are able to live on $20K a year. So, if you are flying regional, there is a pretty good chance that your pilot just came off an eight hour shift at the local coffee shop. A classic example from the Washington Post in 2009 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/13/AR2009051301848.html): 
Executives of Colgan Air struggled to defend the Manassas-based airline yesterday as details emerged about the low pay of its pilots, their long commutes and the need of some to hold second jobs.
Colgan faced questions from the National Transportation Safety Board about its pilots on the second day of public hearings into the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, which killed all 49 people on board and one on the ground near Buffalo on Feb. 12. It was the deadliest U.S. transportation accident in seven years.
Under questioning from the board, Mary Colgan Finnigan, Colgan's vice president for administration, confirmed that Rebecca Shaw, co-pilot of the fatal flight, drew an annual salary of about $16,200. The board also said that Shaw once held a second job in a coffee shop while working as a pilot for the airline in Norfolk. Asked whether Colgan expected Shaw to live in the expensive New York area, near her base in Newark, Finnegan responded: "Pilots are told what the pay scales are. Our pay scales are within the industry standard."  

Noice!!! All I can say is that I hope that the 5 Hour Energy  slogan (No Crash Later) is actually true. And you know for sure this has had to happen more than once over the intercom:

Hello: This is your Captain speaking - may I take your order....Dammit... I mean, uh - thank you for flying Mesa Airlines.  

Bottom line, before my fat ass is back in an airplane there are going to have to be minimal standards for pilot pay. Maybe it's me, but I don't think it unreasonable to require someone who is flying a plane 30,000 feet in the air to make more than the Federal poverty level.

Okay - moving on. The next thing that needs to be fixed - uh, er - who am I fucking kidding!? Even if I could kill every bird in the sky and pay pilots a million dollars a flight - I'm never getting on a plane! I know that it is not a rational thought for most folks, but those of us who have an overwhelming fear of flying - well, - we ain't going to get over it.

What causes it? My theory is that not having a fear of flying is something that we have evolved to and that the natural state of man is to have the fear.

Bear with me for a moment. In order for man to survive in it's neanderthal state, it had to be imbued with certain natural fears. Otherwise we would have either burned, crushed or drowned ourselves to death and birds would be ruling the planet. Is the caveman who avoids standing at the edge of the cliff afraid of heights? No - he's instinctively afraid of falling.

Wouldn't it also make sense that deep within our cerebral cortex there is a group of ancient synapses that are entirely geared to make sure we don't kill ourselves by flying? Sure, most folks get over this because the intellectual part of their mind is aware of all the statistics demonstrating the safety of flying. They also see other folks do it all the time without harm and as a result they are able to overcome the original caveman circuit board. Conversely, some of us our not.

I need this theory to be true. If not, my only other real option to explain the fear is that I am a total pussy - WHICH I AM NOT! So, therefore, my very sophisticated scientific theory must be valid.

Just a note here. Before you start quoting all the plentiful statistics on the absolute safety of flying, I would like to remind you that me and my aero-anxiety friends have heard them all and in fact we believe them to be true. We are after all not morons. We simply have a synapse disorder. We have all read the Overcome Your Fear of Flying self help books and have been to one of the many quality seminars on conquering the fear of flying. Sadly, at the end of the day it is not our intellect that is in disrepair, it is our neuro system and telling someone who is afraid of flying that flying is safe is akin to telling someone who is afraid of spiders that  they are just nature's little eight legged friends.

Hey Professor Mo Fo - You afraid of needles?? So, if education isn't the cure - are there any options?

I think so.  Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to introduce my new concept in flying - ANESTHESIA AIRLINES - Our Guarantee - We May Go Down, But You'll Be Out.

It would be an airline that agrees to put you under general anesthesia before the flight takes off and wakes you up only after you landed. Kind of like those movies where the astronauts are put into sleep pods for their trip to Jupiter. Just knock us out, shove us in - no mess - no worries.

No need to worry that pretty little head of yours.
We'll have that wisdom tooth out before we land
They could even combine it with medical or dental procedures and you would probably get some form of a discount by combining the two activities. For example, dentists would probably do it pro bono if they got a free flight for performing a root canal.

Now, I know that the chances of dying from going under general anesthesia (1 in 250,000) are greater than the chances of dying in a plane crash (1 in ten million), but I'm not afraid of general anesthesia - so, - well - so there.

I'm not saying that launching this Airline would be an easy thing to do. But, it sure would have a dedicated clientele and I am pretty confidant that folks like myself would be willing to pay a premium price.

Okay, if you're not crazy about that idea, how about employing the technical engineering that NASA has been using for five decades. It always amazed me that we could drop a wingless, metal, capsule from outer space into the ocean merely with the use of gravity and some old fashioned parachutes. Why not employ these same parachutes on airplanes? Bird strike? Engine explosion? Wing fell off? - no problem dude - we got the chutes. You'll land like a butterfly with sore legs.

It would also help if we could get the news to stop broadcasting five hour specials on every single plane crash on the planet and instead just report on the number of safe flights ("today, there were sixty three thousand flights - everyone landed safely"). 

So you must be thinking - dude - really? You want us to (a) perform medical procedures in flight, (b) add parachutes to planes, and (c) control the national news media all so that you can get you candy ass self in the safest transportation vehicle ever invented by man??

Well - yes, thank you very much for your understanding.
I'm stranded on the moon - Our capsule got
hit by a flock of space geese!

Okay, your right - my ideas are simply not plausible (sadly, this means the end of my dreams to be an astronaut).

However, I do know these four things to be true:

We need to keep our airplane maintenance stateside so that the FAA inspectors can give us some reasonable assurance that the planes we (by "we" I mean"you") fly in are maintained within standards. 

We need to pay all pilots, whether they are senior pilots with a major airline or a rookie pilot with a regional airline, a decent wage.

I need to get over my hatred of birds.

I need to get over my fear of flying.

And that my friends - is the plane truth