Coping after the Concorde disaster

Consoling odds: Your chances of dying in a domestic plane crash are still less than one in a million.

By Elliott Neal Hester
July 31, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)
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Last Tuesday's Air France disaster brings to mind a painfully blunt reality in the aviation business: Accidents happen. They always have; they probably always will.

For the past 15 years, I've earned a living as a commercial flight attendant, and having worked nearly 6,000 flights, I've had my fair share of scary moments:

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Once, our 727 lost both hydraulic systems while attempting to land in Puerto Rico. The flight engineer had to rip up the carpet in the aisle, pry open a manhole cover and check for the proper indicator while the captain tried to manually crank down the landing gear. In another incident, our captain aborted two consecutive landings during rough weather in the Ecuadorian Andes. He landed on the third try, but later confessed that it was the most perilous landing of his 17-year career.

These were scary moments, to be sure. But I've never come face to face with disaster. Neither have 99 percent of the world's nearly 1 billion annual airline passengers. We expect commercial airplanes to fly safely. Most of the time our expectations are met. Commercial aircraft aren't supposed to fall out of the sky -- they're flown by professional pilots, maintained by professional mechanics, guided by professional air-traffic controllers and monitored by government agencies. But on those rare occasions when things go wrong, the results make international headlines.

Since Feb. 2, 1998, no fewer than 12 fatal air crashes have shattered lives around the world. Airlines from the United States, China, India, Kenya, Egypt, Thailand, Switzerland, Taiwan, the Philippines -- and now France -- have lost a combined total of 1,465 passengers and crew. Fifteen additional lives were lost on the ground.

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Supersonic, subsonic or otherwise, airplanes are machines made up of wires, screws, computer chips and metal. They are equipped with buttons, switches and levers designed to initiate performance.

History reminds us that machines don't always perform correctly. Sometimes they malfunction; other times they break down. Sometimes machines aren't maintained properly. Sometimes machines get the best of the people they're built to serve.

My buddy Greg died because his bicycle chain slipped. He flew over the handlebars, hit his head on a curb in New York and fell into a coma from which he never emerged. The doctors pulled the plug on his respirator a few days after he was pronounced clinically brain-dead.

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My cousin Andrelle died in a car crash. She was driving along an expressway with her husband and newborn baby. A speeding car -- traveling in the opposite direction -- lost control, jumped the median and collided head-on into her car. Andrelle's husband suffered serious injuries. The baby survived without a scratch.

My friend Jacques died in an airplane crash. On Feb. 16, 1998, he was traveling from Bali on a China Airlines flight. As a result of heavy fog and rain, the plane crashed on approach to Taipei's Chiang Kai-shek Airport. All 196 passengers and crew perished. Seven people on the ground were killed as well.

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An airplane crash is a scary possibility that haunts thousands -- maybe millions -- of nervous fliers. I often see the fear on their faces as we take off. But the numbers prove that airplanes are still the safest way to travel.

Each year, more than twice as many people die in automobile accidents than have died in airline crashes throughout the entire history of air travel. Temple University mathematics professor John Allen Paulos addressed this point in a New York Times article: "The statistics that really matter on the safety of air travel are reassuring. We have one chance in 7 million of dying in any given domestic jet flight." A passenger, Paulos says, who takes a daily flight between American cities could go 19,000 years before dying in a crash. For international flights (on American-owned airlines) the chances are one in 1.5 million.

I spent the day of the crash glued to the television screen or searching the Internet for bits of information about the Air France accident. In the process, I learned that the Concorde cruises at an altitude of 60,000 feet -- twice as high as subsonic aircraft. I glimpsed a lifestyle of high-altitude wealth and privilege. (For around $10,000 round trip, passengers sip fine champagne and dine on caviar and gourmet meals while dashing between Paris and New York in three hours and 45 minutes.) Yet, with every audio transmission, every Concorde-related word that flashed across the computer screen, I felt my heart grow heavier. Like millions of people around the world, I wondered how this horrible accident could have occurred. And then I remembered. Despite its grandiose stature, the Concorde is just a machine.

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I thought of Andrelle in her car, Greg on his bicycle, imagined Jacques sitting in his seat on the ill-fated China Airlines flight. "Accidents happen," I said quietly, while watching yet another CNN special report. Mostly, they happen to people I don't know. But when accidents happen to friends and relatives, you begin to take a special interest in accidents that happen to strangers. I thought about the families, wondered where they were when the terrible news arrived.

Air France's stock dropped by 10 percent in the hours following the plane crash. Aviation experts are now pondering the fate of the aging supersonic fleet. In the months to follow, insurance companies will begin to calculate the lifetime earning potential of 113 unfulfilled lives. Arguments will ensue. Lawsuits will materialize. Attorneys will battle over money.

While the bottom line is measured, airline crew members focus on the positive. Flying, after all, is our livelihood. We put on our uniforms, our smiles, and go to work with a business-as-usual attitude.

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As crash investigators begin the slow pursuit of truth, an equally difficult search is being conducted by friends and relatives. They're searching for ways to deal with pain, something we hope the victims of Air France Flight 4590 never had to experience.


Elliott Neal Hester

Elliott Neal Hester has been a flight attendant for 15 years. He has also written for National Geographic Traveler, Men's Fitness, Glamour, Maxim and Caribbean Travel & Life. Out of the Blue appears every other Friday. E-mail your tale of life in the sky to Hester. For more columns by Hester, visit his column archive.

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