Why I do not fly

NOTE: THERE IS AN UPDATED AND CORRECTED VERSION OF THIS ESSAY AT: http://ianmortimer.com/essays/flying.pdf

I do not fly. I refuse to get on an airplane. When people ask me for an explanation, friends who have already tried to convert me hurriedly change the subject, aware that I am prepared to talk about not flying until the cows come home. But as I sat on the hill above the town early this morning, in the sun, smelling the yellow gorse (which is in flower), and watching an airplane leave a vapour trail silently high above, I thought I'd put down a few thoughts on the subject.

Let's start with the obvious point, which is no less pertinent or true for it being obvious. There is a fear factor underlying my decision. Nobody can be unaware that airplanes do not always come gracefully and gently into land when something goes wrong. If something goes wrong with a car, you get out and walk. If something goes wrong with a boat, it floats. If not, then it sinks and you swim. But if something goes wrong with an airplane, your options are limited. The resultant anxiety is natural, common, and (if you ask me) fascinating whether you suffer from it, benefit from it, or couldn't care less. It shows how people think about risk in a number of different ways, and it says much about the nature of fear, and people's perceptions about what fear is.

The most common argument I hear is this. The chances of dying in an aircraft crash are statistically negligible - you are far more likely to die in a car crash - so, if you are prepared to drive a car, why don't you get in an airplane? On the face of it this has some substance to it. In America there are eight deaths per million people on average every year from aircraft disasters compared to 241 per million in car crashes. Thus US citizens are about thirty times more likely to die in a car than on an airplane. If you prefer to measure the various risks by distance travelled, air travel seems safer still. There are 0.05 deaths per billion kilometres travelled by air and 3.1 deaths per billion kilometres travelled by car, so travelling by air is 62 times safer.1

There are two big problems with this approach.

The first is that the statistics are themselves misleading. For a start, every day many more people drive a car than fly in the USA, so a direct comparison is not possible. It is like saying that horse riding has become much safer since 1920 because the number of deaths per head of the population has gone down (whereas the actual reason has more to do with the fact that many fewer people ride horses.) A variation on this reductive statistical reasoning can be seen in the way that the air industry always speaks about deaths per kilometres travelled. Of the nine types of transport commonly categorised (air, bus, train, van, water, car, bicycle, foot and motorbike) air is by far the safest when calculated in this way. But by number of journeys, it is the third most dangerous, being almost three times as dangerous as choosing to travel by car. So, even allowing for the fact that fewer people fly than drive, the grounds for saying that you are 'far more likely to die in a car crash' are based on the fact that airplanes cover such great distances.

The degree to which this deaths-per-kilometre argument is misleading is revealed by applying it to travel by space shuttle. There have been five space shuttles built: two of which (Columbia and Challenger) have been destroyed with the loss of all seven crew, a total of fourteen deaths. Collectively they have gone into space 131 times and flown in the region of 483,719,040 miles. That is a fatality rate of 28.9 deaths per billion kilometres - nearly ten times as dangerous as driving a car but still not as dangerous as cycling (44.6 deaths) or riding a motorcycle (108.9 deaths). So, on this basis it would be fair to say that space flight in a shuttle is reasonably safe - considerably safer than walking (54.2 deaths per billion kilometres). But consider the risks in relation to flights: the fatality rate is the equivalemt of 106,870,229 deaths per billion flights. Pretty damn risky, you'll agree; and statistically sixty-five thousand times more dangerous than riding a motorcycle. So, which do you consider safer: going into space or walking to the shops? If you're sane, you will acknowledge that the vast distances covered by space shuttles distort the measurements of risk per journey, making them seem safer than they really are.

Of course, this argument applies to airplanes too. The dilution of risk across the huge distances covered is misrepresentative. Only the 'fatalities per flight' measure has meaning, because you cannot get out of an airplane - how many miles it travels safely is immaterial if it crashes on landing. Hence you have to calculate your risk according to the number of times you get on an airplane. And by this reckoning you are almost three times as likely to die from each decision to fly as you are from each decision to get in a car.

The second big problem with the 'you are far more likely to die in a car crash' statement is that it is purely a statistical argument, a quantification of risks. This makes no sense to me; no risk is purely quantitative; every risk has a qualitative element to it too, in terms of the nature of what is being risked. In fact, the above statistical argument had not occurred to me when I originally chose not to fly. The real reason I made my decision was a sense that I should consider risk in relation to its quality, as well as its quantity. In other words I should consider what is being risked, and what I have to lose, and not just what I have to gain.

This point about the quality of a risk is not immediately obvious. But take children's playgrounds as an example. It is statistically a small risk that a child falling off a swing on to a patch grass would be seriously injured. But because of the nature of the danger - an injured child, in pain, perhaps handicapped - we demand that councils put down specialised ground surfaces to minimise the risk a little further. Not to do so is deemed negligent. As a consequence, the further risk of compensation payments induces councils to comply. The combined dangers - injured child, large compensation payout and legal bills - mean that a very slight risk is taken very seriously because of the mounting consequences.

Another example of the qualitative nature of risk assessment is the series of decisions from 1989 by the UK government to take precautions against variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) arising from eating the offal from beef infected with BSE. Although the risk of getting the disease by eating beef from a BSE-infected herd was exceedingly small, vCJD is so horrifying that it was worth culling 4.4 million cattle, paying millions of pounds in compensation, and ruining the entire British beef industry for several years to eliminate the risk altogether. Few people would willingly and knowingly eat beef from a BSE-infected cow today, even though the risk of contracting vCJD is considerably less than that of dying in an aircraft crash.

(In case you want to know the workings for that statement, there have been 163 vCJD (including new vCJD) deaths in Britain since the start of 1989 (out of a population of about sixty million) - a risk of roughly one in 370,000 over twenty years. Over a similar twenty-year period (1988-2007) about 33,500 people worldwide have been killed in commercial aircraft crashes (out of a population of about six billion).2 Thus, if you fly no more frequently than the worldwide average, this amounts to a one in 179,000 risk over more or less the same twenty years. But the worldwide average number of flights is only a sixth of a flight every year, or one flight every six years (as the total number of commercial passenger-flights made each year worldwide is 1.09 billion, according to Boeing).3 So if you fly more regularly than once every six years, your risk of being fatally involved in a crash is greater. If you take two flights every year - one to go on holiday and one to return - your risk is about one in 15,000. That is about twenty-five times the likelihood of dying from vCJD over the twenty years from 1989 to 2008.)

If you have any doubt that the way we appreciate 'risk' is connected to the nature of what we are risking, consider the opposite: risk related to reward. Imagine you have a one-in-ten chance of winning a large sum of money, say ten million pounds. If the stake you have to bet to take that one-in-ten chance is one penny, then there would be no harm in placing that bet - you have almost nothing to lose and much to gain. It is much the same if that stake is a pound or ten pounds. At a hundred pounds, perhaps you would start to twitch: the nine-in-ten chance of losing one hundred pounds starts to become more significant. When the stake gets to one hundred thousand pounds, and you have a ninety per cent chance of losing it, the likelihood of losing your stake will probably prevail over the one-in-ten chance of winning ten million. Now consider the stake is your life and the lives of your children. Although the probability of winning is still one-in-ten, and has not shifted at all, your propensity to take the risk has shifted entirely. Unless you have suicidal tendencies, the ninety per cent chance of you and your family losing your lives is far more significant than the one in ten chance of winning ten million pounds. The risk of an event is not the same as its probability. The risk relates to what you have to lose as well as what you have to gain.

Back to airplanes. How do you really want to die? An airplane crash is not my preferred option, obviously, and it is probably not yours either. But you are going to die; all those probabilities do add up to a 100% certainty. You probably want to grow old, have time to put your affairs in order, then keel over of a heart attack at the age of 110 having just beaten your twenty-four year-old neighbour at tennis. Whatever. The dramatic announcement is something we all fear: 'I'm sorry to have to tell you, Dr Mortimer, that you have x months/years to live.' Even that would be better than realising I am in a metal box which is going to turn into an intense inferno in a minute's time. It would be like being tied to a railway track - here comes the train, it's not slowing down, and it's not going to swerve suddenly at the last minute. No chance to put my affairs in order. No time to reflect on my few achievements. No way to reassure my loved ones, or save them if they are tied there with me. Hardly any time to come to terms with my non-existence. Simply complete obliteration in a terrifying instant. If you are an atheist, there isn't even the consolation of heaven or an afterlife. That to my mind gives the risk of dying in an airplane a pretty distinctive and intense character. If the worst were to happen, it really is the very worst which can happen.

On this basis it is pretty obvious that any risk is a sort of cost-benefit decision, or rather a risk-benefit-worry decision. Like this:

[very small probability of car/plane crash]
[my personal fear of the crash event]
[very high probability of successful car/airplane journey]
[my personal desire or need to make said journey]

Personally, I cannot make the above balance swing to the right with regard to flying. The one in 15,000 chance of dying in an aircraft over the course of twenty years, taking just two flights per year, might be small; but when multiplied by the fear of being in a crashing aircraft - total annihilation, which I frankly have difficulty treating as a small matter - the left-hand side of this balance is weighty. Thus the need or desire to fly (on the right-hand side of the balance) has to be very great in order to make the flying justifiable. On the other hand, the desiribility of being able to drive a car thirteen miles into the city and watch a film, buy things, get books for work etc is very significant, and amounts to a great 'need', so I take the risk. Having done so, and often, my fear of the crash event has diminished, so the decision is, in many ways, already made; I don't need to think about it. Hence I drive a car and don't fly. I've never had enough need to forget my concerns for my own self-preservation with regard to flying. Of course, in the case of an emergency - if one of my children was in need of being flown back from abroad for urgent medical help, for instance - then the balance might well swing in favour of flying.

This is why I say a refusal to fly is not irrational. It is totally rational - the prioritisation of the character of an eventuality over its statistical probability. To say it is irrational implies it we should prioritise probability over all other eventualities, not just life-and-death issues. That's cynical. On that basis, no one should play the lottery because they should prioritise the chances of losing over the joy of winning. The UK government should have allowed everyone to eat BSE-infected meat because there was only a small risk of vCJD. If we all thought that way, none of us would attempt anything challenging, rewarding or difficult because the chances of success are too small. There is more to life than statistics. Very simply, if you are worried about being in an airborne calamity, and you can't or don't want to overcome that fear because the rewards of doing so are not great enough, then don't fly. Overcoming your fear won't make you any safer.

To build on this, it is not just the decision of whether to fly or not which is difficult. All the time before the flight you have to think about the prospect of actually getting on the airplane. I am not good with heights - I feel physically weak and sick on the edge of a cliff, and a little dodgy at the top of a ladder - so a journey off the ground is a compete misery for me. And there's nothing I can do about it. It's not like driving a motorbike which is under my control to a far greater extent. I enjoy leaning over on corners and scraping my pedals on a bike, or driving a car fast along a country lane - because of the exhilaration of what I am doing, of feeling the control I have over the vehicle, and the knowledge that I will probably be able to react if something untoward should occur, at least to minimise the damage. In an airplane there is no thrill in the risk you are taking - not like there is on a bike. Everything is done to you in an airplane. You're imprisoned with all your fears. You are told where to sit, when you must strap yourself in, in which receptacle you may be sick, and what to eat and drink (if anything). You can't get out, or wind down the window, and half the time you don't even know what time zone you're in. If you decide to sing to yourself, the person in the next seat will probably elbow you in the ribs; and if your waking hours clash with what is supposedly a night-time flight, you may feel obliged not to speak for ages. And then, when you've finally landed safely, and have come to terms with the fact that your luggage has gone to another continent, you have a miserable time at your destination, thinking about how you've got to do it all again just to come home.

So I decided not to fly.

The moment I made my decision, I was happy with it. I felt a sort of freedom - which is ironic, I know, considering that flying supposedly enables you to go wherever you want in the world. But it was like the lifting of a weight off my shoulders. I no longer had to find an excuse not to get on an airplane. It was simply no longer a problem, like eating meat is not problem for people who become vegetarians. That taught me how the life rules we make for ourselves are not necessarily restrictive. Our decisions not to do certain things can be liberating. They become simply those things which people do not do. Some people eat pork and shellfish, Jews do not. Some people use birth control; Catholics do not. Some people believe in God; atheists and agnostics do not. Some people fly; I do not.

The second reason why I am now happy with my decision is similarly personal. The world is simply so much bigger for me than it is for most people. If I wanted to go to America it would take me a couple of weeks to get there. You could call this a form of determined looking backwards, or 'living in the past', and this would be quite right in my case. I cannot see anything wrong with it. What is so wonderful about being taken from one place and injected like a implanted cell into another? It certainly is not a superior form of travelling - it seems to me a far inferior one, for it places all the emphasis on the destination, not the travelling itself. Sorry - getting to be forty was far more interesting than being forty; the process of journeying is the real adventure. When travelling to Paris - or anywhere else - I see so much more of the landscape than I would in an airplane. I notice unexpected things - boats whose purposes I can only guess at, houses with strangely shaped roofs, flowers, bad drivers, a fat woman sitting in the sun on her doorstep, the way a man waves as he greets a work colleague, an old man walking along holding his grandson's hand. When travelling across land, everything is interesting. Such sights are simply not there to be seen up in the sky. Admittedly, there are good sights to be seen from airplanes too - the deserts of the Middle East impressed me, the Thames winding through London, the sunrise seen from above the clouds in the Far East - but on the whole there is little or nothing to see, do or experience. As cyclists say to tourists in cars, and walkers say to everyone: you see, hear and experience so much more if you travel slowly. With regard to flying, or rather, not flying, it's even more significant. You inhabit a world where history which moves at different speeds (as Fernand Braudel stated) because people move at different speeds. The distance to China is almost as far for me as it was for Marco Polo and his contemporaries. It is certainly much further for me than it is for someone who flies. And you might say that makes me nearer to Marco Polo in outlook. But China - Cathay - is an extreme example, a rare exotic place. There is so much to see before even leaving Europe: all the little medieval parishes laid out across Christendom like an immense patchwork quilt. To be mindful of that is reassuring: it helps me maintain a sense of distance, and with it a sense of place, which everyone used to accept as a matter of course but now which has been largely forgotten.

The third reason why I am happy with my decision is the important one. There is a huge cost in environmental damage and pollution. In addition, I can see for myself that airports blight large swathes of the landscape, cause traffic disruption, and create huge amounts of noise. When all this damage is basically unnecessary - we do not need aircraft to survive as a species or live well as individuals; we did not need aircraft to chart almost every corner of the globe - the cost in terms of damage done to the environment is itself a good reason not to fly. No one in their right mind would argue for the total cessation of flying in the near future; nevertheless it makes sense to think in terms of significantly reducing the number of flights undertaken as well as the numbers of planes constructed, airports built and harmful gasses emitted. The idea that it is a mark of PROGRESS that anyone can take a cheap flight and travel a long distance easily, and to reverse this would be negative, is absurd. It is simply a characteristic of our time that people wish to see technologically supported self-indulgence as a positive development over previous ages. It makes as much sense as saying that having record numbers of prisoners in our gaols is a mark of progress, or living in overpopulated cities with inadequate infrastructures and rife teenage gun crime is a mark of progress, or any other feature of our time. Such views belong to the age which denoted all technological change and expansion as 'progress' - unaware of what it was they were 'progressing' towards. The end result of all this 'progress' is swathes of tarmac, hugely inflated energy costs, noise pollution, gas pollution, global warming, the extinction of many species. As I sat in the sun this morning, looking at that vapour trail, smelling the gorse, it seemed profoundly sensible and right to think that 'progress' should be aimed at preserving nature, wildlife, biodiversity, quiet, and clean air - the opposite of the by-products of aviation.

What all this says about me is probably not for me to say. Some people will incline to the view that, because they themselves have no problem flying, that I am allowing my imagination to get the better of me. People who work with helicopters and airplanes everyday will no doubt scoff at the seriousness with which I treat the subject. It betrays a fragile self-importance which is disproportionate to the value of any individual in society. If the most important people in the world fly on a weekly or even daily basis, then who am I to refuse to run the tiniest risk? On the other hand, people who do not like flying might find some points of common ground here. They might well agree that, if you are aware of a slight risk of terrible disaster, it is wholly rational to eliminate it completely, especially if it is easy to do so. People's opinion of my rationality in this regard does tend to be a subjective judgment on their part. That is probably why I find the subject so interesting. If people are so worried about the fact that I do not fly, and believe I should not give it a second thought, what does it say about them? Why are so many men in particular so keen to force the point that it is just plain fear - not any type of fear, or anything more sophisticated than cowardice - that stops me? Can one learn anything from the fact that those who fly the most seem to have thought about it the least?

Since 1990 I have only once broken my rule not to fly. It was on the occasion of my honeymoon in 1997, when my wife and I had to fly to Florence. Trains could not get us to our destination quickly enough. It was an exceptional occasion, so I made an exception to the rule. Fear, on that occasion had to take second place to necessity. Or, better still, love. I think she appreciated the gesture.

Ian Mortimer
19 May 2008,
revised 22 Oct '08; 14 Feb '09

  1. Table from numberwatch.co.uk showing risks of deaths according to type of travel, based on a table compiled in 2000 from UK government statistics (Department of the Envrionment, Transport and the Regions).. (back)
  2. Data from the Aircraft Crashes Record Office (back)
  3. Statistic downloaded from http://www.boeing.com/commercial/safety/pf/pf_howsafe.html in 2008. (back)



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