Things Worth Knowing If You Have a Fear of Flying

“Statistically speaking, every row of three seats on a commercial aeroplane contains at least one passenger who’d really rather not be there.” (Why fear of flying is just plane stupid)

If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t enjoy flying. It’s always been stressful for me. So  the recent runway mishaps of Cebu Pacific aircrafts are something that resonate to me. I’ve been following the stories of the June 2 and June 13 runway excursions hoping to make sense of what’s causing the back-to-back incidents involving two of the airline operator’s fleets.

The first incident happened on a rainy Sunday evening only a few kilometers from home. The Cebu  Pacific Manila-Davao flight 5J 971 veered off the runway as it landed amid heavy rains. Thankfully, everyone on board that plane was safe.

But what I find alarming about the incident was how Cebu Pacific’s & Davao City’s airport management’s emergency response fell short of expectation. A first-hand account of what transpired at the cabin immediately before and after the plane skidded onto the grassy patch tells a tale of sorely lacking emergency response procedures.

Barely two weeks after that mishap which caused the shut-down of the Davao airport for two days, another CebPac flight skidded at the NAIA runway hitting and damaging 5 runway lights. Again, thankfully, everyone on board was safe.

And as if fate’s giving me something to process the fear and concern such accidents trigger in me, I suddenly had a call from a friend asking for my help to proofread a paper related to Multi-Crew Pilot License (MPL) program. It was while I was doing that and working on some research of my own that I came to understand more about global aviation safety standards and what measures are  being taken to ensure that flying continues to be as safe as it is now, if not safer.

So here’s a few of what I learned about some of the fears which are on top of my why-I-hate-flying-but-too-bad-I-love-traveling-so-suck-it-up list as well as some other random things

  • 2012 was the “safest  year” in global aviation history
  • On take-off and landing – Air Transport News cited in its Aviation Safety Analysis for calendar year 2012 that “runway excursions were again the most common cause of accidents (fatal, non fatal and by number of casualties, all included).”
  • On one of my pet peeves  (i.e. seeing passengers not following instructions, especially in turning off electronic devices) – “People don’t understand why they can’t use their cell phones. Well, what can happen is 12 people will decide to call someone just before landing, and I can get a false reading on my instruments saying that we are higher than we really are.” Jim Tilmon
  • On turbulence “Pilots find it perplexing that so many people are afraid of turbulence. It’s all but impossible for turbulence to cause a crash. We avoid turbulence not because we’re afraid the wing is going to fall off but because it’s annoying.” Patrick Smith
  • On smoother flights (which explains why I’ve always preferred morning flights) – “If you’re a nervous flier, book a morning flight. The heating of the ground later causes bumpier air, and it’s much more likely to thunderstorm in the afternoon.”Jerry Johnson, pilot, Los Angeles

Knowing these things may not necessarily cure all my fears, but they certainly put some of them in perspective. For one, I find what the pilot said about turbulence comforting because my anxiety shoots up each and every time I experience one.

As for the call for a temporary suspension of Cebu Pacific following their aircrafts’ recent runway excursions, I still don’t see how it would help create lasting improvements. Unless the right questions are asked and the best solutions are sought, the investigations aren’t likely to produce the outcomes flyers want to see.

If I could ask the country’s airline operators as well as airport managements some questions, it would be these:

  • How stringent is your pilot hiring process?
  • Philippines is one of the countries with an MPL program initiative. How many pilots have undergone this competency-based training? And what other training initiatives are there to ensure that pilot skills and competencies are continuously upgraded?
  • Given the inherently stressful nature of a pilot’s job, how do they make sure that pilots are not overworked and overbooked?
  • How often do you conduct emergency response drills? A question based on the assumption that you have emergency response protocols in place, which is an SOP after all.

I think that at the end of the day, no amount of aircraft technology improvements can guarantee safety without putting in the human factor in the mix. And even the best pilots get tired and stressed out, too. It’s often easy to put the blame on pilot error immediately following a mishap. But perhaps what’s needed really are lasting reforms driven by all stakeholders.

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