Paul Thomas: Completely safe, and terrifying

The loss of the Malaysian airliner has made headlines around the world and left thousands of friends and relatives anxiously waiting for news.  Photo / AP
The loss of the Malaysian airliner has made headlines around the world and left thousands of friends and relatives anxiously waiting for news. Photo / AP

As we've heard many times, we're safer on an aircraft than in our car or kitchen, and technological advances are making this truism ever truer. Yet every time an airliner goes down, the reverberations are felt around the world.

There are a host of reasons why plane crashes generate so much angst. First and foremost, the loss of life is nearly always substantial. When a machine capable of transporting hundreds of people across oceans and continents falls to earth, the likelihood of anyone on board surviving is minimal.

We know the statistics prove going by road is more dangerous, but we drive ourselves or are driven by acquaintances or family, as opposed to being chauffeured by trained professionals. Furthermore, our cars generally leave the garage without being checked by maintenance staff.

And we have to share the road with other people, some of whom shouldn't be in control of a shopping trolley. Up in the wild blue yonder there's plenty of room for everyone and air traffic controllers ensure aircraft give each other a wide berth.

Thus while the statistics and the aviation system's failsafe aura encourage complacency, the paradox of air travel is that the safer it becomes, the more traumatised we are when disaster strikes.

Anyone with any imagination has at some point put themselves on a plane when something goes terribly wrong and you realise it's going to crash and you're almost certainly going to die. And there the ghoulish exercise must end, because the terror is unimaginable.

On a deeper level, air accidents remind us that there are limits to mankind's ingenuity and an element of hubris in our urge to defy nature, if not bend it to our will. In its triumph over gravity and the tyranny of distance, manned flight is perhaps the ultimate expression of this impulse.

The age of mass travel, brought about by the development of the wide-bodied airliner, has shrunk the globe, not just for the well-heeled, but for the man and woman in the street. The term "jet setter" is virtually an anachronism: yes, a few people catch aeroplanes like most people catch buses, but air travel, even a quick trip to the other side of the world, is well within the means of the majority.

But no matter how much of it we do, whenever an aircraft goes down, we are reminded that flying is an unnatural act.

The mystery surrounding the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 makes it even more disturbing.

In this day and age, when spy satellites identify the brand of cigarettes favoured by jihadists in the Pakistani badlands and government snoops accumulate revealing selfies just because they can, it seems inconceivable that a 70m, 350 tonne, $300 million aircraft crammed with sophisticated electronic equipment can simply vanish.

So now we wait to find out what happened to flight MH370, secretly hoping that the investigation points the finger at man rather than machine, even if that exposes staggering incompetence and/or negligence in the air or on the ground. The alternative - that this technological marvel could simply fall apart or fall out of the sky while doing what it was designed and constructed to do - is too frightening to contemplate.

It was grimly coincidental that, as the world's media embarked on a frenzy of speculation over the fate of MH370, drawing parallels with previous out of the ordinary disasters, the 1988 Lockerbie bombing was back in the headlines.

The only person convicted of the bombing of Pan Am 103 in which 270 people died was Libyan intelligence officer Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

Now an Iranian intelligence agent who defected to Germany is claiming that the bombing was conceived and financed by Iran and contracted out to a Syrian-backed terrorist group as revenge for the shooting down of an Iranian airliner with 290 people on board by the US guided missile carrier Vincennes. (Journalist Robert Fisk, an old and expert Middle East hand, put forward this very scenario some years ago.)

The facts of the matter are profoundly depressing. The US has never admitted wrongdoing or issued an apology; when the captain of the Vincennes retired, he was awarded the Legion of Merit. The conduct and outcome of al-Megrahi's trial were deplored by independent observers and criticised by a review panel.

The CIA apparently knew early on who'd masterminded and carried out the Lockerbie bombing, but for obscure geopolitical reasons, the US and Britain chose to blame Libya.

And the only uplifting chapter in the whole wretched story - the Scottish government's decision to release the terminally ill al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds - was greeted with widespread condemnation.

- NZ Herald

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