Friday, 20 February 2009

The Qantas Paradox

Qantas is regarded as one of the world's safest airlines, to the extent that in the movie Rain Man it was mentioned that Qantas had never had a fatality (It did have some before becoming a commercial jet liner). On my recent trip to Finland (I'm finally home) I flew Qantas from Sydney to Brisbane, then finally Hong Kong to Sydney. Despite knowing of the severe rarity of plane crashes and the safety record of Qantas, those two flights I was particularly nervous. Why?

In 2008 there were a string of accidents involving Qantas, thankfully no-one was killed, but it was still headline news. Air safety is a big deal after all. So while I had read all the statistics, understood at a statistical level how unlikely a crash is, each little sound or the hint of turbulence was enough to send me into a state of mild panic. Oh I wish I had my copy of the Hitch-hiker's Guide with me. Though at that stage of the journey I was quite sleep deprived so that may have had something to do with it.

It's important to realise that there are thousands of flights around the world each day and accidents are rare. Fatal accidents are even rarer. Yet even with a tiny statistical probability of there being a problem in a flight, it's only those times we hear about through the media. I wonder how different it would be if we constantly heard on the news "142 flights have happened in the last 24 hours in this country alone and all made it to their destination safely." But of course we don't hear that, it's not really newsworthy.

And in that is the core of the problem. It's far safer to travel in a plane than in a car, and on a practical side of things pilots are far more trained than the average driver is. Airlines have to make sure they keep their planes in working order because a single disaster could be disastrous for business. Yet despite these statistics, the means by which news is reported, the threat of an accident seems very real through sheer repetition of disasters as portrayed by the media.

News is reporting of statistical aberrations that couple with emotional significance. Statistically, events that happen to 1 in a million people on any given day should happen on average 20 times a day in a country the size of Australia. One in a billion occurrences should happen at least once every 2 years. And this is where I personally have a problem with the media - it's rarely informative and almost always sensational. It brings up an important question - what makes something newsworthy? It seems that these days it's whatever grabs the best ratings. So while that happens, what gives us emotional satisfaction will formulate and alter in our minds our view of reality. We are victims of selection bias on a global level, vicariously viewing the world through heavily and sensationally filtered eyes.

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