Fear of flying is irrational. That’s what my travelling companions always tell me, while I sweat profusely in the window seat, wincing with every bump. My mother — a former pilot — often used to remind me that the aviation industry gets safer with every accident, because it always learns from its mistakes. Two planes never crash for the same reason.
But then, they did.
The latest issue of the New Yorker includes a riveting piece about the now infamous Boeing 737 MAX, two of which crashed in the space of 5 months (in October 2018 and March 2019). It tells the story of the aftermath: first, the pilots were blamed; when that proved to be unfair, the airlines were blamed; when that proved to be unfair, Boeing itself was blamed.
But the New Yorker piece doesn’t stop there. It lays the blame squarely on laissez-faire capitalism and the American government — or, more specifically, the self-regulation that started in the Reagan era.
Stan Sorscher, an engineer who started working for Boeing in 1980 (the year Reagan was elected) tells the writer how, after a merger, the company “went from being led by engineers to being led by business executives driven by stock performance”. At the same time, the Federal Aviation Administration moved to a system where manufacturers had authority to “select and supervise the safety monitors”, rather than having to await an F.A.A verdict.
The plan was to save the aviation industry $25bn over 10 years; the end result was planes that weren’t as safe as they could be.
When Sorscher argued that “bottom-line business models did not apply to building airplanes”, a Wall Street analyst told him, “You think you’re different. This business model works for everyone”. Gone were the days of aviation exceptionalism; making aeroplanes became just another business.
Flying has been getting safer since the turn of the century. But in the last few years, there have been the kind of preventable tragedies that we don’t associate with the airline industry.
So maybe don’t share this with someone who’s scared of flying. Or do. It’s what every phobic secretly longs for: evidence that our fear is not so irrational after all.