Flying's safer than driving, but planes don't coast well


An estimated 11 million Americans will take to the skies this Thanksgiving week and very, very few of them will end up scattered over cornfields.

Wait, let me put that better:

Statistics show that your chances of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 4.6 million, while your chances of dying in a car crash are 1 in 125.

So don't worry about dying in a plane crash.

You probably won't even make it to the airport.

But given that you are much more likely to die on the highways than in the air, how come so many people are afraid of flying?

Well, for starters, this has been a terrible year for air travelers.

On Oct. 31 we had that awful crash of an American Eagle turboprop in Indiana.

On Sept. 8 we had that awful crash of a USAir Boeing 737 outside Pittsburgh. And on July 2 we had that awful crash of a USAir DC-9 outside Charlotte, N.C.

So far this year we have had 237 people die in plane crashes, the most since 1988 when 285 died.

And even though the airline industry estimates that 5 percent more people will fly this holiday week than a year ago, some people are refusing to board certain planes and certain airlines.

This has proven very serious for USAir, which has had a shocking five fatal crashes in five years, the worst record for any major airline in more than 20 years.

USAir -- already dubbed "US-Scare" -- has taken out a series of full-page ads in 40 American newspapers to talk about air safety.

(I would encourage everyone, by the way, to use full-page newspaper ads as their primary means of communication. Instead of going through the hassle of addressing all those Christmas cards this year, why not just take out a full-page ad? Rates available upon request.)

In one of the ads, Seth E. Schofield, chairman and chief executive officer of USAir, states that safety is of "vital importance" to him and therefore he has hired a retired Air Force general, Robert C. Oaks, "to oversee USAir's safety operations in the air and on the ground."

Which made me feel a whole lot better until I read a statement by Oaks, who said: "I am looking forward to the chance to document and add to USAir's strong safety record."

But where does he get off saying USAir has a "strong safety record" before he has even started his job? Shouldn't he be finding out if USAir has a good safety record rather than looking forward to "documenting" it?

To me, this is a little like George Stephanopolous saying: "I will look into this Whitewater business and there's nothing there."

The New York Times, for instance, doesn't think much of USAir's past safety practices. Two of their reporters found safety lapses at USAir including planes leaving the ground with too little fuel in their tanks, insufficient training for its pilots, and planes flying in damaged condition.

I understand USAir's problem: It is more than $2 billion in debt and losing $2 million a day. And when money is tight around my house, I often put off certain expenses like getting my car worked on.

But I don't drive my car at 35,000 feet carrying 132 passengers.

Which explains why people are more afraid of flying than driving, even though flying has a better safety record:

If my car engine goes out while I am hurtling down the highway, what is the worst that will happen? I will coast to a stop. Maybe somebody will rear-end me, but it's a pretty good bet I will walk away from it.

But what if I am hurtling through the sky on a plane and the engines go out? Without engines, planes have the aerodynamic properties of a brick. And there is a good chance I will not walk away from it.

After the recent crash of that American Eagle flight, the International Airline Passengers Association, a consumer group, advised people to avoid flying in planes with fewer than 31 seats, saying one alternative was driving.

This was quickly denounced by John Lauber, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, who said: "Putting people out on the highways puts them, believe me, at far greater risk."

And, statistically, he is correct.

But I, for one, am going to drive in the future rather than take small planes.

Because if something goes wrong, I'd rather start out on the ground rather then end up there.

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