Archive for Wednesday, July 23, 2008

White knuckles aside, flying still saves time

July 23, 2008

I have to admit that I'm something of a white-knuckle flier.

I remember a line from a Shelley Berman recording that was popular when I was a teenager. As best as I can remember it, Berman, who also was a reluctant flier, explained how, despite all the statistics that show how safe flying is, sometimes he sat in the airplane as it readied for takeoff and told himself, "to hell with science, tonight it's not going to make it."

I, too, have read the statistics. I know that I'm much more likely to be hurt driving to the airport than I am to be in a plane crash. But that doesn't completely quiet that voice in the back of your mind that suggests that visiting New York (or Washington or Chicago or East Jackrabbit Flats) isn't really all that important.

I even took flying lessons, thinking that more knowledge might somehow quash my worries. That was a bad idea. If anything, it made them worse. Shakespeare was right: a little learning is a dangerous thing. What I didn't consider was that learning how to fly an airplane (even a little one) would, of necessity, teach me about all the things that might go wrong with a big one.

This opens up a whole new range of possibilities. What if an engine gives out on takeoff? When climbing, is the nose too high? When turning on approach, is the airspeed sufficient to maintain lift throughout the turn?

Those are sort of domestic problems - that is, problems confined to the airplane in which one is presently a passenger. With our skies growing more crowed every day, what about all the other planes out there?

Even when the airplane is sitting perfectly still on the tarmac, I could probably call to mind a dozen things that might be going horribly wrong at that moment.

The airlines try to put you at ease, but a few of their practices could benefit from some adjustment.

Now I know they have to tell us about the proper safety procedures for evacuating the airplane. And I also know there have been times when they worked, at least to some degree.

I usually sit through those OK without too many problems until they start talking about what the flight attendant is pleased to call the "water landing." In the unlikely event of a "water landing," we are told, we should remove the cushion from our seat, thread our arms through the loops on the side and use the cushion for a floatation device.

I must confess that I foresee a different chain of events in the "water landing." As a jetliner lands at a speed somewhere around 160 to 180 mph, I'm not sure just where I'll find my seat or what its condition will be. I confess that I do not expect that a jetliner that hits the water at that speed would retain any more buoyancy than your average rock.

I should acknowledge, I suppose, that I wrote this piece immediately after flying back from our nation's capital, where the wife and I spent a few days visiting our daughter and her husband and celebrating our newest grandson's first birthday. Let me say, also, that the flight was comfortable, the seats were commodious, and the crew members were the very embodiment of patience, professionalism and courtesy.

And yet, all these anxieties remain. So, why do we fly?

Strangely, part of it is cost. If there are two or more of you and if you don't have a really fuel-efficient car and if you don't want to stay in the old motels down by the railroad tracks and eat lunchmeat sandwiches en route, flying is possibly less expensive than driving.

There aren't many alternatives, either. Amtrak may be a possibility, if Amtrak goes where you want to go by a more or less direct route.

But the big factor is time. Driving to Washington would have taken two days or more each way, as opposed to about 2 1/2 hours on the airplane. In the end, we are willing to put up with the illusion of risk in order to save time. The irony of this is that it is really safer. It just doesn't always feel that way.

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