Respond to flying like dying?

Much of my recent time has passed on aeroplanes, with intervening bits on buses, trains, taxis and dragging an embarrassing mound of luggage between them. Planes share a style of decor and organization which differs from other transport. They feel sanitized and ordered. Every passenger is given a matching set of plasticized provisions. Most things are white or the colours of the airline brand, with no other advertising or decoration. Staff are unusually uniformed. They don’t just offer drinks, but authoritatively ensure that nobody has their tray table down when landing, or their hand luggage not stored under the seat properly. They have a long ritual to explain the detail of safety procedures, as if planes were especially dangerous. All these things are unusual for transport. Why are they specific to planes? I can think of two possible reasons:

  1. Planes were more recently expensive, high status transport. Thus they traditionally have more intensive service and a cleaner style, as those who are paying a lot already are willing to pay extra for.
  2. Planes are more inclined to scare their guests than other forms of transport: flying is a popular phobia. An air of meticulous order might go a long way to reverse the fear induced by shuddering around in the air torrents. Especially as those in control are clearly more authoritative than you, casually commanding you to sit down or close your laptop. Obsession with safety procedures could be particularly useful for calming passengers, even if it should suggest that emergencies are more likely. Paranoia about safety matters that passengers don’t care about, such as whether their tray table bumps them, means that they can trust the airline employees to respond strongly at the hint of a real emergency. So they can remain calm as long as they can see the flight attendants are. If this theory were true, it could also explain the similarity to hospital decoration and behaviour.

9 responses to “Respond to flying like dying?

  1. Interesting. The anal-ness of air hostesses about safety has always pissed me off; I know that there is no rational reason for the safety obsession, and it involves making me uncomfortable.

  2. On the other hand, the obsession with safety procedures reminds everyone of the dangers.

  3. There may be multiple equilibria:

    1. Our current situation: Strong displays of safety-consciousness. Such displays feed the common assumption that flying is dangerous. Any airline that stepped out of line by appearing more relaxed might be seen as negligent in the face of danger. It would lose customers and go out of business.

    2. An alternate universe: Few displays of safety consciousness. This would feed the common assumption that flying was safe. Any airline that stepped out of line by being overtly safety-conscious would give the impression that flying *on that airline* was unusually dangerous. It would lose customers and go out of business.

    On the other hand, that theory might be complete nonsense.

  4. Maybe it’s just that plane crashes are really spectacular. Cars crash all the time and nobody hears about it. When a plane crashes it’s national news.

  5. i think it’s all theory #2 (commercial plane flight has been non-high status for generations now). But I wonder if these controls are mostly for a small minority of flyers prone to extreme reactions. I myself have a strong irrational fear of flying. As part of it I observe other passengers carefully, and most seem calm and unperturbed.

  6. I wonder what would happen if one airline relaxed these safety rules and advertised itself as being “chill”.

  7. I can drive a car or take a train or bus and envisage all manner of mechanical failures, but still have (at least in my imagination) a sporting chance of getting out alive. Flying however seems much closer to a binary proposition (why doesn’t each passenger have a parachute beneath their seat?)

    I think the heavy-handed emphasis on safety, security, protocol etc. that one finds with commercial airlines ultimately relates to this, even while it is sometimes tangential and/or disingenuous. I think we have a preferential bias in respect of fairly uncommon events (car crashes) that may not result in death, rather than extremely uncommon events (plane crashes) that almost certainly result in death.

    At some level, this has to do with loss of choice. To fly is to make a commitment in which one forfeits choice far more than if one drives or takes a train. Perhaps the onerous safety drills are either a reflection, ramification or even intrinsic part of this?

  8. I think being so cautious on planes is more surprising than being incautious elsewhere: it seems silly to prepare for an emergency which will come so rarely, given the small impact of the preparations. But historically it might not have been so obvious that the risks were small or the precautions weren’t worth it (other forms of transport were more continuous with what had come before). Once things have settled in, there is a lot of inertia.


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