When in doubt, panic

Last week news organizations gleefully trumpeted the near collision of two airliners. Their coverage was spotty at best, with few, if any, first hand accounts from anyone with actual knowledge of the event, other than the description of a passenger.

Fortunately for editors and news producers who are too busy or disinterested to assign actual reporters to what is purported to be an earth-shattering story of epic proportions, one passenger seated aboard one of those aircraft sidelines was a writer, or a blogger at least. He wrote a first-person account of his experience that appears to have fueled the media frenzy over the near-event. He titled that expose, “Two Weeks Ago, I Almost Died in the Deadliest Plane Crash Ever.”

Thank goodness he chose straight reporting over sensationalist gibberish. And heaven forbid the piece be titled something ridiculous like, “Two weeks ago I travelled more than 2,000 miles in only a few hours, comfortably seated in air-conditioned comfort, and landed uneventfully at my destination more or less on time.”

Of those two absolutely ridiculous headlines, I ask you, which is the more accurate? If you are a professional news person, you may well pick the first. If you are a person with a functional brain who has acquired the skills of thinking and reading, odds are good you’ll choose the second.

If there is a better example of how ignorance, fear, a wanton sense of entitlement, and lust for notoriety are damaging our industry and our culture, I can’t think of one that makes the case more clearly.

The fact that a passenger published an incendiary piece about commercial air travel is unfortunate. However in the Internet age, it’s not surprising. People publish all sorts of nonsense on the Internet. Heck, I publish on the Internet.

It’s not Al Gore’s network of computers that’s the problem. The problem is people who pass themselves off as editors and producers of news content who are willing to essentially publish and air anything that catches their eye, whether it passes the smell test or not.

The secondary problem is that we who are knowledgeable about aviation don’t stand up in the public square and set the record straight. We need to do that. And we need to do it forcefully, with confidence and a strong commitment to telling a true, accurate, and understandable story.

Remember the balloon boy hoax of 2009? It takes a special kind of lunacy to believe a home-made spaceship filled with helium could accidentally lift a 6-year-old boy into the air so quickly that mom and dad and the other kids couldn’t stop the ascent. Yet there it was on television, and there were the highly skilled, college educated reporters urging us to worry for the safety of a boy who was purported to be in great danger.

Why bother to do actual reporting when it’s so much easier to just encourage people to freak out?

Let’s consider what the writer of this blog post was actually charging. His contention is that two airplanes were on a collision course over the Pacific Ocean. He acknowledges the equipment designed to detect and protect against such a collision worked as advertised. He acknowledges the pilots took evasive action. He even admits no crash occurred.

Excuse me but, where is the story here? Admittedly, it’s not desirable to have two aircraft going head to head in flight. But it’s not unheard of, either.

If any vehicle other than an airplane was involved, this wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. But since it’s airplanes we’re talking about, the implication is clear. Be afraid. Be terrified. Watch our coverage of something we don’t really understand — but be afraid of it anyway.

Is it possible the blogger is under the impression that we as a society can legislate a set of conditions that allow John and Jane Doe to enter a pressurized tube, accelerate to 500 knots, rise to cruise several miles above the surface of the earth, and travel thousands of miles — without the slightest risk of any kind?

This is a wake-up call for the general aviation community as much as it is for commercial operators. It is confirmation that the public does not understand even the basics of air travel.

Even now, 100 years after the start of scheduled passenger service, the public at large is at the mercy of the news media that feeds them a steady stream of fear-inducing stories of dubious veracity.

They fear the safest, most efficient means of transportation ever devised by humankind. Worse, they don’t understand the industry or the science of the machinery — and so they continue to perceive aviation as an industry steeped in danger, risk, and imminent death.

Perhaps the fear mongers should all travel by car or boat from now on. Apparently two cars passing at a combined speed of 120 mph with less than 5 feet between them isn’t of concern. After all there’s a strip of paint on the surface of the road that prevents one from crossing over into the path of the other. Nothing could possibly go wrong there.

For those inconvenient trips abroad, I’m confident they can find passage on a ship that encounters only smooth seas, no strong winds, no rogue waves, and not a single case of norovirus for their entire journey. I have no doubt there’s a congressional committee or an office of the Department of Transportation that can mandate nothing but smooth sailing wherever they go.


  1. Donnie Underwood says

    A very good commentary. Sensationalism sells, no doubt about that. The scary part is that the stories pilots find so idiotic are stories that the non-flying public believe. A good friend once told me that the media is trying to turn the public into scared little sheep.
    The way things are going I can just hear it now: FOX NEWS ALERT!-FOX NEWS ALERT!-THE SKY IS FALLING!!!

    • Austin says

      A clever attempt to vilify Fox News, intimating that they are the problem, not a reporter of facts. Fox News didn’t even report the bloggers story, it was mainly CNN & NBC.

      Air travel is exhilarating adventure, with the specter of disaster always lurking. If that doesn’t fit one’s criteria, one shouldn’t buy the ticket or spin the prop.

  2. Jim Sturges says

    Don’t you think it *is* newsworthy when our National Airspace System allows two passenger jets, theoretically under positive control, to violate separation standards in such a way that TCAS gets involved? I certainly do. This easily trumps the “Man Bites Dog” headline.

    It also points to a probably immutable fact that our ATC system has evolved to the degree that only human error has been the source of fatalities in commercial aviation for a long time. Boeing 737 rudder actuators are the only exception that comes to mind.

    I agree that we should be grateful that we can, in general, hurtle toward each other in aluminum tubes at a combined 900 knots in bad weather at night, and talk about it the next day. Automobiles at 120 mph would not be so successful if the drivers had their eyes closed, the real parallel to your comparison.

    I also agree that headlines sell papers, as you correctly point out, and am thankful that most of us are wise enough to separate the chaff from the content.

    Thanks for your good reporting!

  3. James A. Mitchell says

    I don’t know if you are talking about the same near miss ,but I got the straight skinny from an FAA employee that one plane had to make a rapid descent of 600 ft. per min. Big Deal

  4. Ray says

    Remember when we used to laugh at tabloid “news” like the National Enquirer and other such rags? Now this type of “journalism” has gone mainstream….sad.

  5. R. S. says

    Excellent article. We need more people to stand up to the news media. They need to go to the scene and get proper information. I get really upset when I find an article with a picture of an airliner or business jet and when reading the article find out it was a Cessna 172 that actually had the accident. I have written to the authors of these articles, but to no avail.

  6. Barbara Roggenkamp says

    Wish I’d been sitting beside the twit- my comment would have been “daaa, yup, there’s udder planes up here, fur sure, fur sure………..

    With 30 years of GA flying under my belt, it gals me when passengers make comments about something of which they have no knowledge in an attempt to appear intelligent. And to frighten other passengers in order to put a few pennies in their pocket has an even stronger result to my opinion… the low class ignorant clod.

  7. SR says

    Great commentary, Jamie. Those types of reporting are insulting at best to the aviation community and relted businesses. Several years back..at least 20..there was a program that offered education to the media to “help” them do a more accurate job of reporting aviation related happenings. I do not know how successful it was then or what happened to the effort. I realize that organizations like AOPA and NBAA are busy working to get regulation issues and other important concerns resolved, but we need those groups to focus attention on educating the g ed neral public about aviations positive impacts on business, local economies, how aircraft are used, the jobs created (not just direct ones), safety, and other facts. We in the aviation community do like many other groups that do a lot of internal support and “preaching to the choir”, but almost nothing to get the word and education out to the public at large. If we put even half much effort into public education, we would be less feared and accepted like other types of business/transportation/professions. Not only would this type of bad reporting/story telling be nearly eliminated, but also we would see more interest and growth….both are positive and far reaching impacts to everyone not just aviation directly.

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