James Fallows points out that the saga of Flight MH370 reinforces ideas about the dangers of flying, even though plane crashes are quite rare:
First-world commercial air travel has become so extremely safe that when something does go wrong, figuring it out can be a huge challenge — which heightens the mystery and, for many people, the terror of these episodes, by making them seem so random. You’re sitting there grumbling about the discomforts of modern flight — and then, for no apparent reason, your plane is the one headed into the sea…
I remember that when the 777 was introduced it was such a sales success and was expected to live such a long service life that some people speculated the fleet could actually make a billion flights. Of course, you don’t need to make a billion flights to draw the magic short one-in-a-billion straw. But it is something to think about. Transport flying is now so safe that the long time standard of 10 to the minus 9th may not satisfy the public.
The sobering point here is again that the very safety of modern air travel makes these episodes both intellectually and emotionally even more difficult.
Why does flying seem so threatening when driving is a much much more dangerous daily activity?
1. Passengers on an airplane have no or little control over their circumstances. Car drivers, in contrast, feel like they have a lot of control though is is part illusion: they can’t control the people around them or the conditions.
2. Plane crashes can involve dozens or hundreds of deaths. A larger death toll from a single event seems far worse than the amalgamation of lots of individual deaths. Think about the difference about the murder toll in Chicago on a yearly basis (spread throughout the calendar) versus the Newtown shootings (one event, worsened because the children couldn’t do anything about it).
3. The media grabs on to tragic events like this and keeps them in public view for weeks. In contrast, single deaths or smaller incidents get short mentions unless they involve unusual circumstances.
All together, the odds of dying in a plane crash are very small. That doesn’t mean those odds carry the same emotional and social weight.