Crashes of commercial airliners are rare. That they should happen so infrequently, as Clinton Oster and colleagues wrote in Why Airplanes Crash (1992), ‘is one of the remarkable achievements of the 20th century’. Despite this, it’s axiomatic of plane crashes, when they do occur, that they should be talked about as if they happen all the time.
What happened last week to the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that was on its way to Beijing? Who knows. On the Today programme this morning Justin Webb interviewed a man who knew something about flying. Webb talked about the importance of not speculating, then asked the guest what his hunch was.
Nothing beats the Professional Pilots Rumour Network, whose rules for joining its forums don’t include one that says you’ve got to be a pilot. Just now, the members of the Malaysia Airlines forum are heavily into the question of whether mobile phones on board the plane might have emitted signals.
I was in the 1990s a follower of plane crashes, when I often flew between New York and London. For reasons I know don’t add up, I believed you could educate yourself out of a fear of flying if you knew why planes crashed. (You could of course educate yourself into a first-class fear of flying at the same time.) The US National Transportation Safety Board lists every investigation into fatal and non-fatal crashes that they have carried out. There were in that decade several prominent crashes of planes that had set off from New York – TWA 800 in 1996, Swissair 111 in 1998, EgyptAir 990 in 1999 – and the best pieces about those accidents were in the Atlantic Monthly by William Langewiesche, who had made a reputation for himself as someone who knew how to write about flying. Those pieces have since been collected in a book, Aloft (2010).
Both Aloft and Why Airplanes Crash are books whose titles tend to reflect the reverse of their contents: in Langewiesche’s there’s a lot about why planes don’t stay aloft; in Oster’s there’s a lot about why planes actually fly. And both discuss the problems of boredom in modern aviation.
Langewiesche, once a professional pilot, writes about an airliner:
I know through long experience with flight that such machines are usually docile, and that steering them does not require the steady nerves and quick reflexes that passengers may imagine… Airplanes are very simple devices – winged things that belong in the sky. They are designed to be flyable, and they are… The biggest problem in flying the airplane on a routine basis is boredom. Settled into the deep sky at 33,000 feet, above the weather and far from any obstacles, the 767 simply makes very few demands.
Oster et al say:
It is also unfortunate that keeping air travel safe is a job replete with boring tasks. Inspecting 2000 rivets on a fuselage, screening baggage on television monitors for hours for minimum wage, and the slack period at Air Traffic Control centres where errors have occurred most often are the types of ‘human factors’ problems that mean that technology must be relied on for help. This creates an uneasiness among both industry officials and the travelling public – from ‘your flight in your hands’ to ‘your flight in some computer’s silicon chip’. The tough call always has been when systems should be allowed to work, and when human judgment should be allowed to overrule the system.
This boredom doesn’t seem so boring. There’s no real news about the Malaysia Airlines plane, not just yet, but with this plane crash, as with others, no news doesn’t mean no news.