Every day more than 8 million people travel in planes, taking around 50,000 flights. For an activity that's so commonplace, flying engenders a lot of fear and superstition.

Events such as this year's cluster of conspicuous plane crashes and disappearances add to the impression that flying is a risky business.

But, as Superman said to Lois Lane: "Statistically speaking, it's still the safest way to travel."

Part of the problem is that the process of flight is mysterious to the point of miraculous. Every time I fly I marvel at that instant when a 379,000kg piece of machinery goes from being firmly earthbound to being 1cm above it.

Advertisement

And there is no doubt that the act of flying is fraught with risks and dangers.

Much of the routine of air travel is aimed at preventing us from noticing these risks and dangers. We receive a safety briefing of dubious utility. We are encouraged to remain securely belted in our seats.

Being confined makes us feel unsafe. We prefer freedom of movement in the event of an emergency. It makes the crew's job easier if you feel in control because you will be more relaxed. To achieve this, airlines provide you with elements of choice: the chicken or the fish; movie and TV viewing options running into the hundreds.


Plane crashes often frustrate our need for clear answers. Enigmas fuel our imaginations. Don't have an explanation? Make one up.

Yet still we fret. Another reason plane disasters stand out among transport-related fatalities is they carry off large groups of people at once.

A few crashes ending hundreds of lives are much more dramatic than the slow build up of fatalities in thousands of car crashes that take many more lives every year.

Plane crashes often frustrate our need for clear answers. Enigmas fuel our imaginations. Don't have an explanation? Make one up. Either Vladimir Putin or the CIA ordered the shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine. Accepting such explanations means not asking awkward questions such as "why?". What purpose on earth would it serve either Putin or the CIA to have performed that act, with its inevitably awkward consequences?

In the absence of explanations, paranoia kicks in. It is, among other things, a way of making sense of the world. The more mysterious the event, the more far-fetched the explanation we are likely to come up with. It's as though superstition is hard-wired in our brains.

Maybe it is. We've spent a lot of our evolution coming up with magical explanations for how the world works.

Fortunately, it's that very willingness to speculate, that determination to find an explanation, that has taken us from the wheel to the aeroplane.