It has been very uncomfortable following the news this week about the catastrophic ending to the Germans Wings flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf. The unfolding story being revealed by the cockpit voice recorder shocks us to the extent that it goes beyond what we think of as possible in the range of behaviours we expect from one human being, like us, to others.
As I write this I wait to hear what evidence the German Police have found in First Officer Andreas Lubitz’s homes. There are reports of a recent disappointment in love and a period of absence from flight training due to depression as if this explains his grotesque decision to take his own life and that of 150 others in an act of extreme nihilism; showing an absence of regard for his life and that of all of his fellow crew and passengers.
This cannot be regarded as the action of a broken hearted, depressed man. There are broken hearted and depressed people all around us and we are safe from murder at their hands. No, there is something else at play here just as there was in Columbine High School, Sandy Hook, Dunblane and the Norwegian island of Utoya.
Today we learn that many American and European airlines were already operating the policy of having two crew members on the flight deck at all times to prevent such rogue actions in the cockpit. Today, in Britain, they are joined by easyJet and Virgin, Thomas Cook and Monarch and others around the world.
These will be difficult days for Lufthansa, owner of German Wings and one of the worlds most reliable and trusted carriers, as they follow the procedures that have made air passenger transport the safest form of travel that it is per passenger carried, per mile travelled and per flight made. Their recruitment, training and on-going certification procedures will be being examined in detail for what they can learn that led to a rogue pilot having sole control of the cockpit and the lives of 150 people. The result of this work will lead to the urgent implementation of procedures that will very significantly reduce the risk of any such incident occurring again in any regulated passenger aircraft.Air passenger transport has led the way in operating an open reporting culture that underpins its notable safety record. They were the first to use written checklists, procedures that have only recently been shown by medical researchers to be reducing patient risk in hospital operating theatres.
What does all of this mean for the 4,000,000 people who fly safely to and from their homes every day in life? Very little. The individual stories of loss and grief are tragic and we, in our humanity, can identify with those grieving. The difference in the risk a person may face flying today is immeasurably small and in fact the risk statistics will move in their favour as a result of the inevitable tightening of procedures that will follow this event.
How can an anxious person respond to flying in the wake of this news? As ever, such a person will benefit from remembering that their anxiety response is the over functioning of a brain and body mechanism that works to protect them from harm. The hair trigger sensitivity of that mechanism can leave them at the mercy of anxiety as it responds inappropriately to circumstances that don’t actually represent a threat to them.
Although I have flown many miles and expect to fly many more in my lifetime, I don’t expect to suffer any harm in an aircraft. The only way to guarantee that I would suffer none is to go nowhere by air. That would make it impossible to visit the people I love in America and many hundreds of times more risky to visit the people I love in London, Paris or The Hague if I were to go there by car. The public response to the deaths on 9/11 resulted in many more deaths on the roads of the USA than would have been normal in the couple of years after the planes were crashed into the twin towers.
Ultimately it is not flying that is the problem. It is our heightened response to anxious thoughts that we magnify and give the status of ‘truth’ to that makes anxious people’s brains less able to evaluate risk usefully and leaves them confronted with stark choices to go nowhere by air and limit the pleasure they could otherwise have in their lives. No-one was born anxious and no-one need be condemned to live with anxiety. It is entirely possible to learn how this anxiety mechanism works and to become as expert at turning it down and eventually off as they have become victims of its grip on their lives. Anxious thoughts about flying are no more the ‘truth’ than any other untested claim. The difference about the safety claims of the aviation industry even after the tragic events of this week is they do stand up to rigorous scrutiny and do tell the truth about how much time, money and human intelligence have been invested in making it so. I much prefer the freedom I can enjoy being guided by those facts than by the false claims my anxiety mechanism could cling to in the face of such a story.