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.