Especially when you’re on the red-eye out of Sydney and you stayed up late last night watching bad American TV series from the ’90s with names such as Mayday and Airline Disasters.
I know you. You’re the one lip-syncing the safety instructions in perfect timing with the airline crew. You can point out the exits (hands open, palms flat) and you already know how many seats there are between you and your nearest exit. You give your full attention to the safety demonstration, locking eyes with the crew to let them know you really are listening, glaring at your poker-playing fellow passengers.
Listen: instead of sucking up the late-night droning voice-overs and grainy footage of Air Crash Investigations and How You Could Have Saved Them, you should have been watching Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise (stay with me here). In an unlikely turn of events, Hoffman’s role as an autistic savant became Qantas’ best advertisement in the 1988 movie Rain Man. His prodigious memory holds figures and facts, including airline safety stats.
In 1987, Hoffman mutters, there were 30 air crashes resulting in 211 fatalities.
‘All airlines have crashed at one time or another,’ says Cruise to Hoffman, as he tries to lure him onto a cross-American flight from Cincinnati to Los Angeles. ‘That doesn’t mean that they are not safe.’
‘Qantas,’ mutters Hoffman. ‘Qantas never crashed.’
A road trip movie was born and the enviable record of Qantas was burned into the collective mind of Middle America (even though it’s technically untrue – Qantas has had no fatalities in peacetime, and then, only since it started using jets). If that statistic has you cancelling your budget night flight to Bali, remember that 2017 was the safest year on record for aviation, with no deaths on commercial airlines’ jets, according to the worldwide Aviation Safety Network. (This number excludes cargo and turbo prop flights, but again, let’s not niggle).
Happy news indeed, if you’ve just picked up this magazine in an airport newsagency or have had a recent conversation with a former pilot – they all seem to enjoy a good flight horror story. That probably involved a rival airline, a fellow pilot they didn’t like anyway, or one of the notorious, EU black-listed carriers: basically, any plane from Afghanistan, most of Nepal’s domestic airlines and a raft of small Indonesian carriers.
Horror stories? I’ve heard a few. Of drunken pilots, of narrowly missed mountain peaks, of subordinate crew too indoctrinated not to contradict their captain, no matter if the captain was actively crazy or just plain dead. Rich seams of horror stories are also likely to emanate from any of the big offenders on Australia’s own airlineratings.com’s ‘one-star airline’ list, such as Air Koryo from North Korea and Suriname’s Blue Wing Airlines – which you probably won’t find yourself flying any time soon.
‘The worst landing I ever performed was the landing I never actually made,’ former TAA and Qantas pilot David Jacobson shares cheerfully. ‘We hit the ground before we even started to flare for the landing.’ Reassuringly, he says the only thing that really took a hit was his ego. Following from that event and drawing on his 50 years of flying experience, Jacobson has, since 1985, developed and written what he describes as the first comprehensive and quantifiable technique on how to land a plane. Apparently that part is still regarded as an ‘art’, even now, almost 100 years since the end of World War I when it really was! The Jacobson Flare is now an app for iPad and has recorded sales in 57 countries.
He suggests if you really are a nervous flyer (I suggest if you were, you probably wouldn’t have read this far into the article anyway), choose your carrier carefully. Happily, the Asia-Pacific region is home to some of the safety stars of airlineratings.com’s annual round-up, including Cathay, Emirates, Singapore, Virgin Australia and, of course, Qantas. Book their freshest aircraft, the Boeing 787 Dreamliners Qantas is using on its new ultra-long-haul, non-stop route from Perth to London and the Airbus A350, beloved of Singapore Airlines. Both are obvious choices. And it may be time to remind you that the loathed middle seat is actually (marginally) safer than the aisle or window.
What can we passengers do, wedged down the back near the loo? Unhelpful courses of action include jumping up to get your manbag, imposing your religious dogma upon others and loud swearing (mainly because, when the turbulence subsides, everyone will know what a potty mouth that staid matron really has). We can also take comfort from the Aviation Safety Network, which estimates there are 36,800,000 flights a year of which only one flight in more than 7 million is involved in a fatal accident. Then compare that with Australia’s road death toll: 85 people died in February alone.
Personally, I wish for a pair of Peril Sensitive sunglasses from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. ‘At the first hint of trouble, they turn totally black and thus prevent you from seeing anything that might alarm you,’ reads the unsurpassed sales pitch.
But life is – mostly – not sci-fi, so put your landing lips on, and remember that while take-off may be optional, landings are mandatory. Let’s hope your next one is marshmallow-soft – and in the right place.