Numeracy and Risk in Air Travel: A Personal Account
By David Henderson
Months ago, my wife and I made plans to fly from San Francisco to Honolulu on Sunday, July 7. Of course, we didn’t know that the day before there would be a big airline crash in San Francisco. Should that one incident have changed our thinking about flying? Of course not. Air travel is incredibly safe and one sample point doesn’t change that fact.
Here’s what I found encouraging, though. Not only did my wife not waver in her decision to fly out of San Francisco, but also, the only discussion we had about the Asiana Airlines, other than the amazingly small loss of life, was about whether it would cause our flight to leave late. She understood that the incident had no connection to our risk. Moreover, just observing people in the international terminal from which we flew, I didn’t notice anyone who seemed unduly afraid. Of course, there’s selection bias: those who were unduly afraid may not have shown up. Still, what was refreshing also was the talk generally in the media about how safe airline travel is. There seemed to be real numeracy, at least on this issue.
Even when we took off and looked down at the Asiana wreckage beside one of the runways, I didn’t hear people gasp. To the extent people commented, it seemed to be human curiosity at work.
I’m very grateful that there do not appear to be any videos of the plane crashing. Had there been such videos, many people’s fear would probably have been higher. Sometimes, apparent numeracy is only skin-deep.