Fear of Flying After 9/11
(The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 6, 2001)
For 15 years, I've been a fearful frequent flyer. I'm a medical reporter based near Washington, D.C. About twice a month, I fly to medical conferences in cities all around the United States. You'd think I would have become used to it over the years, but no. I jump at every thump, bump, and rumble.
I was that way long before Sept. 11. Afterward, you can just imagine. For weeks, the idea of getting on a plane again was utterly unthinkable. Unfortunately for me, it was also inevitable if I wanted to keep my job.
My first post-Sept. 11 flight was on Oct. 16, to Atlanta. I made preparations as the dreaded day loomed. I arranged to fly with a talkative colleague who I knew could distract me. I scored a prescription for Xanax from my doctor. I drew up a will, and e-mailed my mother directions for accessing my bank account, my 401(k) plan, and other assets. (She was not pleased.) I tucked a little prayer in my purse.
I somehow survived that trip, and another one to Chicago the following week. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling of dancing through a minefield.
Whenever I mention my fear of flying to people, I hear the same two things. The first is, "You're much more likely to die driving to the airport than on a plane." Believe me, I'm scared of highway driving too -- especially D.C.'s notoriously busy Beltway, which I avoid whenever possible. In fact, my most frequent reason for using the Beltway is to get to one of the DC area's three major airports. Knowing that I could easily die on the way to the airport does nothing to diminish my fear of flying.
The second thing people say is: "Do you know how many planes fly every day?" Now this is potentially helpful. I'll reply, "No, how many?" "Hundreds, maybe thousands," they'll say. "Which is it, hundreds or thousands?" I'll ask. Usually, the conversation ends there because they don't know.
After my shaky Chicago trip, I decided to find out. On the Federal Aviation Administration's Web site (www.faa.gov), I found lots of crash and "incident" statistics, but nothing about the total number of daily flights. So, I sent them an e-mail.
Here's what I learned: In October 2001, U.S. carriers made 903,180 domestic and international flights, for an average of about 30,106 a day. For the period of October 2000-June 2001, those numbers averaged 985,931 flights a month, 32,864 a day. The FAA's Web site does provide these incredible statistics: From 1990 to the present, an airline passenger has faced a risk of death of one in 8 million. A passenger flying every single day could go for 21,000 years before perishing in a crash.
Of course, those numbers were calculated before Sept. 11. Airport security may not yet be as good as we'd like, but it is certainly better now than it was before 9/11. Assuming that maintenance procedures haven't changed, flying is a lot safer now than it was before 9/11.
So, why are so many people--myself included--more afraid to fly now? Because of the news, that's why. Since Sept. 11, not a day has gone by without a scary story about airplanes or airports: Security breaches, unruly passengers, Congress's urgent pursuit of an airline security bill, and of course, the terrible crash of Flight 587 in New York. We're getting the message that flying isn't safe, even though it's really not true.
But I don't fault the media. After all, "news" is about the new and the unusual. We'll never see the headline: "30,000 Flights Took Off Today, and Nothing Bad Happened." It's not the media's job to report such normalcy, much as it would help right now.
I flew to Seattle on Saturday, Nov. 10. I was eating breakfast in Seattle on Monday the 12th when I heard about American's Flight 587. I was scheduled to fly back to D.C. that night, on the 10:10 p.m. redeye. All day, I made frantic calls to United Airlines, both fearing and hoping that my flight would be canceled. It wasn't, but by the end of the day it was running nearly two hours late -- the plane was coming from JFK, where Flight 587 had crashed.
When I got to the Seattle-Tacoma airport, I bought myself a 15-minute massage. The effect was remarkably Xanax-like, so I skipped the pill. But I did have a beer with dinner.
I watched the New York passengers disembark. Many looked a bit tense, but all were unquestionably alive. If they could fly all the way to Seattle from New York, I reasoned, I can certainly make it back to D.C.
After takeoff, I stared out into the blackness and marveled. Here I was, sitting in a dimly lit metal cylinder in the middle of the night, soaring across the country some 40,000 feet in the air, while a friendly flight attendant offers me more decaf. Amazing.
I felt a sudden surge of self-confidence. I, intrepid career woman, had successfully fought my fear of flying ... for now, anyway. With that thought, I did something I rarely do on planes: I fell asleep.
I arrived back to DC on Tuesday morning just in time to hit the Beltway at the most horrific height of rush hour. Luckily, I survived that too. ###
Copyright © Miriam Tucker. All rights reserved.