Plane crashes are terrifying. As humans, they play to some sort of visceral fear inside of us—we aren't supposed to fly, so the thought of something going wrong up there is particularly unsettling.
This morning, Germanwings Flight 4U 9525 from Barcelona to Düsseldorf crashed in the French Alps, killing all 144 passengers and six crewmembers onboard. The victims include German, Spanish, and Turkish citizens, and a German school class returning from an exchange trip. As efforts continue to access the wreckage near the remote ski resort town of Barcelonnette, on the Italian border, media coverage has ramped up as well.
For a large-scale tragedy, some level of news coverage is expected. After all, plane crashes are terrifying. They play to some sort of visceral fear inside of us—we aren't supposed to fly, so the thought of something going wrong up there is particularly unsettling. Perhaps that's part of the reason the media—VICE included, as this article can attest—is so eager to cover them. Still, the minute-by-minute updates and manpower being devoted to this story above all others (a pattern we've seen in other major flight disasters last year ) and its domination of social media sometimes feels like a distracting and potentially invasive form of rubbernecking. As the crash currently remains a mystery set in fairly inaccessible terrain , it's likely that this coverage will continue for some time, forcing us to confront the question of just why we're all so morbidly obsessed with gawking at plane crashes.
The obvious answer for the current coverage is that we've been primed to pay attention to fatal plane crashes by an especially deadly year of flight. Between the disappearance of MH370 a year ago, the downing of MH17 and crash of Air Algérie Flight 5017 last July, and the wreckage of Air Asia Flight 8501 in December (just four of eight fatal crashes that year), commercial airline accidents killed at least 992 people worldwide in 2014, the most deaths on record since 2005.
But although 2014 was an especially deadly year, coverage of those deaths only revealed that flying is safer than it's ever been, and still much safer than any other form of transit. Based on statistics from 2000, we should have expected to see up to 39 commercial crashes with fatalities (less than a quarter of flight accidents result in deaths) in 2014. The fact that we saw eight is a testament to airlines' focus on safety and maintenance— private planes are definitively less safe . Even after all these tragedies, the chances of dying in a plane crash are still one in 8,321 over the course of one's entire life (compared with, say, one in 723 for death in a pedestrian accident or one in 119 for unintentional poisoning). Deaths in cars and motorcycles are 100 and 3,000 times more common per ride, respectively.
There's been a little borderline scaremongering today, claiming that there might have been clear warning signs or endemic problems with the Airbus A320 jet class involved in the Alps crash. But these planes, even a 24-year-old model like the one that went down, are among the most automated and safe aircrafts in the skies. With about 5,600 in service worldwide , carrying over a billion people in 2014 (including the A319 and A321 variants), these extremely popular planes have only been involved in 12 fatal accidents since their 1988 release (and a number of non-fatal crashes, like 2009's Miracle on the Hudson ). That gives the A320 a remarkable 0.14 accidents per million flights record according to Boeing safety experts.
Yet despite the fact that we know there's no progressive safety concern, we still give definitively more attention to flight deaths than other more common and lethal tragedies. In 2014, media outlets gave 43 percent more coverage to the 992 commercial flight deaths than they did to all of the 1.24 million ground traffic deaths worldwide, according to a Google Trends analysis . This isn't surprising, of course. Much of it has to do with news outlets chasing ratings (and thus income). CNN saw a 68 percent spike in their prime-time viewership during their MH370 coverage according to Nielsen data, which likely fed back into their decision to obsessively follow the story. That crash, at its peak, inspired 1 million Tweets per day and the 17 stories run on it by the BBC brought that outlet its heaviest traffic since the 2011 Japanese tsunami. The allure of the market for plane crash stories is so great that NatGeo recently developed a show dedicated to the subject entitled Air Crash Investigation, which premieres this Thursday.
As to what drives the demand for excessive coverage of plane crashes, several factors seem to be at play. Some of it has to do with our general obsession with disasters, which Eric Wilson, a professor at Wake Forest University and author of 2012's Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away , says stems from both voyeuristic and empathetic impulses:
"Fixating on disaster reportage can bring out the worst in us: getting a rush from the suffering of others, and the best: a feeling of empathy for those suffering as well as a deeper understanding of the meanings of suffering and death," Wilson told VICE. "I also think that we probably get a feeling of relief when watching disaster coverage, relief that this terrible thing didn't happen to us."
Planes, Wilson went on to explain, are probably especially engaging as a subject for rubbernecking because of their scale and the cinematic images that accompany them.
"These crashes, unlike car crashes, usually kill hundreds of people all at once," he says. "[Also] we can imagine ourselves in such a crash—if it could happen to them, then it could happen to us. Most of us can't imagine ourselves dying in a war in the same way, since most of us have never fought in a war."
In addition to spectacle, the safety of air travel and rarity of major crashes (which take on shorthand names and become national tragedy marker stones ) lends a dog bites man effect to these stories. Mid-air crashes, which account for just 10 percent of all fatal plane accidents , especially ride this wave. And when there's a mystery angle, as in MH370 or 2009's Air France Flight 447 , the stories will stay in the news much longer as new clues slowly emerge and reopen coverage.
Highlighting these rare and vivid events also plays into common neuroses. In America, according to the 2014 Chapman University Survey of American Fears , 43 percent of us are somewhat afraid of flying (both because it's fucking flying and because we don't have as much control over our fates as we do with our hands on a steering wheel, for instance) and 9 percent are very afraid or refuse to go up in the air. As with any good morbid fixation, there's now an app for this paranoia—launched earlier this year, Am I Going Down? allows us to indulge and grow this common anxiety by checking a rough likelihood that our current flight will crash.
All of this combined—rubbernecking, the scale and visuals of plane crashes, man bites dog effects, and our collective flight neuroses—are a potent recipe for media oversaturation. Fortunately this cultural obsession doesn't seem to be raising rates of aviphobia , which hold fairly steady over time and across cultures. But such constant coverage can't be great for our more general anxieties or collective sanity, much less for the wellbeing of all those directly affected by these tragedies, which rapidly turn into spectacle for the rest of us watching on.
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