JFK, Fear and Risk
I've found the reaction to last week's kid controller fiasco nearly as interesting as the event itself. It's kind of a popular case study in how people perceive and manage risk—not just physical risk, but the sociological kind, too.
As pilots, we have a Pavlovian negative reaction when media outlets—mostly cable news—overplay a story, as they certainly did with the JFK kid controller. We practically froth at the mouth because these stories get things so wrong in pitch and detail. Why is this? The root of it is the public's fear of flying, which reporters and editors are more than happy to pander to in order to retain dwindling audiences.
And anxiety about flying is still quite real. On an airline flight I was on last month, just as the cabin door closed, the Captain announced that a bleed air valve in the left engine was broken. We would be delayed while it was fixed. The guy to my right, whose Dad happened to be an airline pilot, shrugged it off, the woman to my left was buried in her iPhone, but the woman directly behind me audibly gasped, "Oh my God!" She wasn't joking.
That distribution roughly conforms to the somewhat loose research that shows that about a third of the population has some anxiety about flying and some percentage of them are truly fearful. Most passengers conceal their fears, but the slightest abnormal strips away the veneer of calm. Those of us steeped in aviation have trouble understanding this because we know how a modern airliner's redundant systems work and we know enough about accident rates to realize how low-risk airline flying is.
But my theory is that many pilots think they know more than they do and as a group, we tend to substitute familiarity for actual rational knowledge. I've been reading a book called The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why. It discusses the difference between intuitive and analytical risk assessment. The intuitive mind—the part of the brain responsible for fight or flight—doesn't rank risk but ponders only worst cases. The analytical runs the numbers, ranking risk based on probabilities. The woman stressing over the broken bleed valve is a classic intuitive response.
In my experience, many pilots actually tilt toward the intuitive, not the analytical. They think they don't, but they do. Example: We get a lot of questions from pilots about traffic systems for light aircraft, suggesting that many owners are fearful of mid-air collisions. But mid-airs, despite being spectacular and often fatal, are a tiny fraction of the overall flight risk. If you eliminated light aircraft mid-airs entirely, it wouldn't move the accident rate much, if at all.
As a group, we run airplanes out of gas twice a week, on average, and run them off runways into ditches for no apparent reason three or four times a day. Approaching the risk analytically, you'd buy a fuel totalizer first, then spend time training and practicing landings. (Of course, none of this applies to me, because I am an exceptional pilot and I'd never run an airplane off a runway. But you need more training.)
I was speaking to one of our writers last week about the new WAAS approaches, the LPVs with vertical guidance. He just automatically assumed that with vertical guidance, these approaches are safer. Really? I asked for actual data on that. Show me how these approaches have actually reduced the probability of an accident, not just that they should. The history of safety "improvements" is littered with examples that made things worse or propped up the status quo. It's just as possible that LPVs could lure pilots into weather they might not otherwise tackle, thus bumping up the accident rate. This is another example of substituting familiarity with rational analysis.
All of this is to say that judging risk is full of blind sides. I'd venture to say the JFK controller and his supe got utterly blindsided by this story because the nature of the risk was entirely outside their universe. There was no real safety risk at all, so they may have assumed there was no risk of any kind. Familiarity substituting for knowledge does that sometimes. And we're all susceptible to it. It's worth thinking about.
WEDNESDAY P.M. UPDATE: For those of you out of the U.S.--or even in it--look into how CNN is now covering the "Jihad Jane" story for an example of how cable stokes fear and loathing. An interview this morning had two calm, reasonable sources saying this wasn't something to worry much about. But the anchor kept incessantly questioning these sources as if to insist something had to be done, as though we're about to be overrun by blonde, blue-eyed terrorists.
This is a direct corollary to the JFK controller story.