Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Our terror over flying has cost us

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
July 11, 2013 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
In this handout photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 sits just off the runway at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, July 7. The Boeing 777 coming from Seoul, South Korea, crashed on landing on Saturday, July 6. Three passengers, all girls, died as a result of the first notable U.S. air crash in four years. In this handout photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 sits just off the runway at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, July 7. The Boeing 777 coming from Seoul, South Korea, crashed on landing on Saturday, July 6. Three passengers, all girls, died as a result of the first notable U.S. air crash in four years.
HIDE CAPTION
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis once on flight that made aborted landing, then landed safely
  • She says fatalities rare but air travel draws primal fear that dangerous travel modes don't
  • She says 9/11 drastically changed the cost of flying; U.S. spends lavishly on air safety
  • Ghitis: While relatively safe, will never be completely predictable or 100% incident free

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns.

(CNN) -- Everything looked perfectly normal as the plane prepared to land. I fastened my seat belt and looked through the window, watching the toy cars on the highway below gradually grow to life-size, and the airport runway rapidly -- too rapidly, perhaps -- move almost within arms' reach. The plane touched down, barreled ahead on the tarmac for a couple of seconds, and suddenly raised its nose and roared back up to the sky pressing us against our seat backs while climbing at a frighteningly steep angle.

What happened, we wondered wordlessly. What's coming next?

What came next was an anxious circling back to the airport followed by a smooth landing and not much of an explanation about what had gone wrong. By then, our heartbeats had mostly returned to normal.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

The story did not end the same way for passengers of Asiana flight 214, which crashed on landing in San Francisco last weekend, leaving two young women dead and scores injured.

The Asiana disaster continues to rivet our attention. We want to know exactly what went wrong. But that's not only because it was a terrible tragedy for many families. It's that air flight commands so much interest.

The San Francisco disaster is receiving much more attention, for example, than the horrifying runaway train crash in Canada that razed a town and killed at least 15 people, with another 45 still missing. We give far more attention to plane crashes that kill a small number of people than to, say, car fatalities, which killed more than 32,000 people in the U.S. alone last year.

Each death is devastating and should be mourned, but our attention, in proportion to the risk and the death "tool" is much greater when it comes to flying.

The experts have told us the statistics. Flying is almost perfectly safe. Even when disaster does occur, as with this weekend's flight, the numbers are extraordinary. More than 99.3% of the 307 people on board the Asiana flight survived.

NTSB: Plane set in many autopilot modes
Alaska crash victims were 'spectacular'
Canadian police widen train investigation

It's much more dangerous to do almost anything, the statistics tell us, than to fly. Billions of people fly every year and almost zero percent of them die in the process. The risk is comparable, we're told, to that of dying from a ceiling collapse at a grocery store.

And yet, the reassuring statistics penetrate our collective fears as slowly as a worn drill bit cutting into stone.

Flying remains a surreal, magical experience, but one that -- even among those who will adamantly deny it -- is framed by a twinge of irrational fear. The experience of climbing on an airplane and watching it defy gravity, break through the clouds and glide across the sky remains a barely comprehensible human achievement; it feels like a challenge against the laws of nature.

Flying has a powerful emotional hold on us. There is something sublime about humans looking down upon the clouds. But the experience also packs the truth about our mortality more transparently than almost anything we do.

When we are sitting in that cargo-packed aluminum tube, mocking the earth's pull, the thought that something could go badly wrong tends to sneak into our consciousness. A spell of strong turbulence can sharply shift the collective mood on board, no matter what the statistics. It's no wonder some people refuse to fly without a strong infusion of thought-quieting alcohol.

It is that outsized emotional power of flight that makes plane crashes or news about near misses compel our attention, even when the casualties remain (fingers crossed!) so remarkably low.

There is, of course, a grave downside to the exalted place on which we keep our fear of air disaster. There is a reason terrorists have so often used flights as the means to inflict terror. They know we pay attention, they know we are primed for fear.

Not surprisingly, such a powerful primal response comes with a price tag. As a society, we spend enormous sums and we endure endless discomfort trying to do everything we can to make flying safe, or at least to make many of us feel as though we've made it safe.

The 9/11 attackers, who used passenger aircrafts as weapons produced such a strong reaction that they drastically changed the flying experience and the cost of flying. Some put the total 9/11 tally at trillions, most of it from America's intense reaction to the hit.

The Transportation Security Administration spends $8 billion per year shepherding us through endless security lines. We obediently stand in the queue, adding countless hours and enormous inconvenience, hoping it all amounts to more than security theatre.

In the aftermath of my aborted landing, I spent hours trying to dig out the facts of what had occurred, as I have done after other, much scarier flying experiences involving engine failures, jammed landing gears and blown tires. Anyone who has traveled extensively, particularly in remote parts of the world, has a few stories to tell about airborne misadventures.

First I asked a flight attendant what happened when I was leaving the plane. She said there was "probably" something blocking the runway on our first landing attempt. I looked up the public records of flight incidents and was surprised to find no sign of my obviously not routine incident. I called the airline and was told, much to my surprise, that these kinds of "touch and go" and "go around" incidents are quite routine, barely meriting a note in the log, and that there was probably another aircraft on the runway, perhaps an air traffic controller mistake.

Then I called the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA said their logs showed no sign that such a thing had occurred. I called the airline again, pointing to the FAA's denial of their story. After much insistence and many phone calls and emails I was finally told it was the pilot who "was not comfortable" with the landing he was executing.

Flying, it seems, will never be completely predictable or 100% incident free.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1252 GMT (2052 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT